November 18, 2016

OBITUARY: Raoul Wallenberg


Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944 and has finally been declared dead 71 years after he disappeared

Raoul Wallenberg was a 32-year-old businessman with dealings inside Nazi Germany when the Swedish government sent him on a mission to Hungary in 1944. His task was to help Jews escape the mounting terror as the Germans occupied a country that, until the start of the year, had been a relative haven for those fleeing Nazi persecution.

Once in Budapest, Wallenberg — who was described as a special envoy — bribed officials, halted deportation trains and used extortion to achieve his goals. Eventually he hit upon the idea of issuing “Schutz passes”, temporary Swedish passports, to Jewish people. As citizens of a neutral state, bearers of a Schutz pass were not only exempt from wearing a yellow star identifying them as Jews but were also able to leave the country safely.

He rented dozens of houses in Pest, cramming them with Jewish people and declaring them to be under the protection of the Swedish flag. “He was a little man with gaunt cheeks,” said Alice Szeles, who worked for the Swedish legation. “He would stand with his legs spread and hands thrust deep in the pockets of his old trench coat, and dare the Nyilas [Hungarian Nazis] to enter. “This is Swedish territory,” he would tell them. Their guns did not frighten him. He never carried a gun himself.”

On one occasion Wallenberg intercepted a train that was about to leave for the Auschwitz extermination camp, climbing on to the roof and handing passes through the doors. Despite shots being fired, Wallenberg continued until he ran out of the documents. He then climbed down, located the train commander and demanded that those in possession of a pass be released. His courage was said to have impressed even some of the SS troops.

When Jewish prisoners were being forced to march 20 miles a day to Hegyeshalom on the Austrian border in November 1944, he drove alongside the long column of Jews, delivering food and water to those who had not yet succumbed to the cold or starvation.

The Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, who was given the task of destroying Hungarian Jewery, was said to have been so incensed by his activities that, a month later, he arranged for Wallenberg’s car to be rammed and wrecked. Fortunately Wallenberg was not in it, but Eichmann sent word: “We will try again.”

Wallenberg was officially permitted to issue 5,000 passes. Later reports suggest that he issued many more. Some estimate that his actions saved up to 100,000 lives. Marianne Balshone, who was eight when her father was detained by the Gestapo, recalled just before her death last year how she managed to get a Schutz pass delivered to him. “The next day my father appeared at the threshold of our house, gaunt and beaten but alive,” she said.

In late 1944, on the eve of the siege of Budapest, the Hungarian government declared the temporary passports to be illegal. Wallenberg, who had become friendly with Baroness Elisabeth Kemény, the beautiful wife of the Hungarian foreign minister and herself Jewish (though protected by her husband’s status), secured an audience with Ferenc Szalasi, the prime minister. Wallenberg warned him that banning the passports would imperil Swedish-Hungarian relations. Under pressure from Kemény, Szalasi backed down and thousands more Jews were saved. One postwar report read: “If Wallenberg slept, no one knew when, for he was on the move night and day. Alone in his automobile, bearing a tiny Swedish flag, he was here, there and everywhere. He seemed to work intuitively, so that wherever trouble flared he was present to intercede on behalf of the Jews.”

Russian troops entered Budapest early in 1945. Steven Radi, later a New York businessman, recalled that on January 15 soldiers were inspecting papers in one of the safe houses. Wallenberg happened to be there. “The soldier . . . called a higher officer, who asked Wallenberg to go with him to headquarters,” Radi told The Times in 1981. “Raoul left without taking any personal effects — we thought he would be back in a couple of hours.”

Charles Wilhelm, later a lawyer in Brussels, recalled how Wallenberg told him that Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet commander, wanted to talk to him about setting up a relief and rehabilitation organisation, but Wallenberg was not sure if he was travelling to the meeting as “the guest or the prisoner of the Russians”. He was never seen again.

His courage was said to have impressed even some of the SS troops

Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg was born in Lidingö, near Stockholm, into a prominent and wealthy family in 1912. His father, a naval officer also named Raoul, died three months before his son’s birth. The boy was raised by his mother, Maj, and his maternal grandmother. At school he gained top grades in Russian and drawing. After military service young Raoul spent a year in Paris before studying architecture at the University of Michigan in the United States, using his holidays to hitchhike around America.

Returning to Sweden in 1935 he learnt that his US qualification was not recognised. He found work with a Swedish company in South Africa and was later posted to Haifa in Palestine. Eventually he returned to Stockholm, where he worked for an import-export company that had dealings in central Europe. By the early years of the war he was making regular visits to Germany and occupied France.

In July 1944 the Swedish government, which was officially neutral, asked him to go to Hungary. Wallenberg was eager to help, but insisted on having full autonomy and not having to work through the usual diplomatic chain of command. By the time he arrived in Budapest an estimated 440,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to the Nazi death camps; only about 230,000 remained.

First reports of Wallenberg’s work reached the West in March 1945 when Stockholm confirmed his actions. Over the following years more details emerged and in 1961 his actions were commended during the trial of Eichmann, who was charged with war crimes, in Jerusalem.

In the confusion of the postwar months there had been various reports of his fate, including that he had made his way safely to Stockholm or that the Nazis had killed him.

A Budapest street was named after him and a monument commissioned depicting a young man struggling with a giant serpent. These were suddenly abandoned. Many years later a correspondent for The Times chanced upon the sculpture outside a provincial factory. The manager explained: “There had been a terrible mistake: Wallenberg had not been murdered by the Nazis but taken east by our liberators.”

Wallenberg’s disappearance at the hands of the Russians, who believed him to be an American spy, has long cast a shadow over Swedish-Russian relations. Various accounts from Moscow suggested that he had died of a heart attack or that he was in one of the gulags. Defectors and former prisoners spoke of communicating with him while serving their sentences, but no official confirmation has been forthcoming. During the Cold War the US in particular made a point of honouring him in absentia, including the award of the Congressional gold medal. In 1963 Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, declared him to be one of the “righteous among the nations”.

Bronze replicas of his briefcase — stamped RW — can be found in many places across the world as monuments to his courage. One has been placed on a bench in Budapest, others outside the United Nations in New York, and on the site of the summer house at Lidingö where he was born.

Wallenberg’s family are still no nearer to establishing the truth. His mother and his stepfather, Fredrik von Dardel, repeatedly questioned the Swedish and Russian governments, but to no avail, and sent letters through officials to “dear beloved Raoul”. They committed suicide in 1979 in despair at the lack of answers; his half-brother Guy von Dardel, a physicist involved in the establishment of Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, died in 2009.

Eventually Nina Lagergren, his half-sister who is now 95, requested that Wallenberg be officially declared dead. The Swedish government published search notices for him and received no new information on his whereabouts.

Finally, on October 31, Pia Gustafsson, an official from the tax authority, which registers deaths, announced: “The official date of his death is 31 July 1952. This date is purely formal. Legally, we must choose a date at least five years after his disappearance and there were signs of life until the end of July 1947.”

Raoul Wallenberg, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian, was born on August 4, 1912. His date of death has been declared by the Swedish authorities to be July 31, 1952, aged 39