January 19, 2019


Thanks to his ingenuity and courage, Wallenberg is believed to have saved the lives of scores of Jews.

Raoul Wallenberg

Back in the beginning of the millennium, I co-founded the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, together with my dear friend, the late US congressman and Holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos.

I was born before the outbreak of the Holocaust but unlike my European Jewish brethren, I grew up in the peaceful landscapes of Argentina, far away from the Nazi menace. Nevertheless, I always identified with the millions of victims and was mesmerized by the courage of the rescuers.

This is how I came across the awe-inspiring story of Raoul Wallenberg, a young Swede, scion of one of the most influential families in Sweden, who without any diplomatic experience, in less than six months, carried-out one of the most incredible stories of rescue known by mankind.

As a formal emissary of his country, with the backing of the War Refugee Board (WRB) established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, and immediately plunged himself into a tireless quest to save the remainder of the Jewish community. Prior to his arrival, the Germans and their Hungarian accomplices had deported more than 400,000 Jews, most of them to Auschwitz. The plan of the War Refugee Board was to save the remaining 200,000 Hungarian Jews. With the help of neutral Sweden, the WRB picked-up Raoul Wallenberg for this mission.

Upon his arrival, he started distributing “passport-looking” certificates of protection known as Schutzpasses, which had no legal validity, but made a strong impression upon the Germans. He set up makeshift hospitals, nurseries, soup kitchens and some 30 “safe houses” that were part of the “International Ghetto” in Budapest, a site reserved for Jews holding certificates of protection from neutral countries. On more than one occasion, he personally extricated Jews that were rounded up for deportation, claiming that they were under Swedish protection, risking his own life in his confrontation with the Nazi guards.
In his life-saving efforts, he spared no means, including threats, cajoling and bribes.

Thanks to his ingenuity and courage, Wallenberg is believed to have saved the lives of scores of Jews.

On January 17, 1945, less than seven months from his arrival, and when it became clear that the war was nearing its end, he went to see Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, commander of the Soviet Forces, to coordinate the relief efforts for the Jewish refugees.
Instead of holding a meeting, he and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, were arrested by the Soviets and sent to Moscow for interrogation.

Ever since, the fate and whereabouts of both Wallenberg and Langfelder remain shrouded in mystery.

Historians and commissions of enquiry have speculated about the reasons for Wallenberg’s detention and disappearance, but the truth most likely lies somewhere in the archives of the KGB.

On June 15, 2006, the then-deputy of Mission of the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, Alexander Darchiev, a seasoned and respected diplomat, wrote a letter to our foundation, stating, “Responsibility for the death of Mr. Wallenberg lies with the USSR leadership at that time and on J. Stalin personally. No other authority could deal with a Swedish diplomat, representative of a neutral state, a member of the ‘Wallenberg Family,’ well-known both abroad and to the soviet government.”

Darchiev’s comments make a lot of sense; based on them, one should assume that such a high-profile murder would have been carefully documented. We hope that the Russian authorities would sometime allow unfettered access to those archives, which would likely shed light into this human tragedy.

In the meantime, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, under the chairmanship of Eduardo Eurnekian, continues its efforts to keep alive the legacy of Raoul.

Our flagship program, Houses of Life, very much inspired in Wallenberg’s safe houses, is one example. To date, we have identified more than 500 Houses of Life in Italy, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Greece, the Netherlands, Denmark and Albania, which gave shelter to the victims of the Nazi persecution, mainly children left by their parents before being deported to the concentration camps.

The country of Albania and its people, for instance, will be soon proclaimed as a House of Life in a ceremony in Tirana. This little country in southeast Europe was the only one that suffered the Nazi occupation yet ended-up with more Jews than it had before the outbreak of WWII. A collective effort by the Albanian people facilitated the saving of the tiny local community and many other Jews who had fled to Albania from neighboring countries.

The Houses of Life program demonstrates that Wallenberg was not alone in his heroism, but his tragic detention and disappearance compel us to pursue our efforts to bring him back home, next to his loved ones.

The author is the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a New York charity devoted to preserving and spreading around the legacy of Wallenberg and all rescuers of Holocaust victims.