I first heard of Raoul Wallenberg when I was visiting Israel in the summer of 2008. I had just spent a gut-wrenching morning inside Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. It was very dark inside the museum, since the halls are made of concrete and designed to emulate the sewers beneath the Warsaw Ghetto. From the museum, I wandered out into the sunlit Garden of the Righteous, where Gentiles who worked to save Jews from the Holocaust were dedicated “righteous among the nations” and invited to plant a tree. I saw many familiar names, such as Oskar Schindler and Corrie ten Boom. The last name I read, on a plaque against a tree near the bookstore, was Raoul Wallenberg.
It wasn’t until later that I learned the full story of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat appointed by the War Refugee Board, an organization formed to deal with the growing genocide in Hungary by a number of activists and supported by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet. He was then sent from Stockholm to Budapest to attempt a rescue of Hungarian Jews facing extermination by the Nazis, who were being led by the lethal Adolf Eichmann. When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July of 1944, over 400,000 Jews had been deported within the preceding three months.
Wallenberg soon realized the desperate nature of the situation: there were only 230,000 Jews left in Hungary and the wheels of Nazi bureaucracy were still grinding on with fatal purpose. He began to design Swedish passports himself, official looking documents that fooled Nazi bureaucrats who were easily cowed by perceived power and any appearance of officialdom.
According to the The Journal of Leadership Studies, “Wallenberg began with forty important contacts in Budapest, and quickly cultivated others who were willing to help. It is estimated that under Wallenberg’s leadership he and his associates distributed Swedish passports to 20,000 of Budapest’s Jews and protected 13,000 more in safe houses that he rented and which flew the Swedish flag.” Wallenberg even hung signs on these buildings labelling them “The Swedish Library” or the ambiguous “Swedish Research Institute,” claiming diplomatic immunity for these buildings and all who resided inside them.
It still wasn’t enough. Eichmann’s Final Solution was coldly calculated and brutally efficient, and thousands upon thousands of Jewish men, women and children were still being forced into cattle cars, eighty per car, and sent hurtling down the tracks to death and the hell of Auschwitz. Raoul Wallenberg responded by abandoning all thoughts of personal safety and launching himself into the fray.
One of the most famous accounts of Wallenberg’s heroism was recorded by Sandor Ardai, a member of the Jewish underground who was assisting Wallenberg as his driver. As Ardai tells it, Wallenberg personally intercepted a train full of Jews bound for Auschwitz, forcing his way past an SS officer who ordered him off the platform:
“Then he climbed on the roof of the train and began handing protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him, which would have been impossible otherwise. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports, he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don’t remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it!”
Wallenberg began moving from place to place to avoid capture and assassination, while constantly lobbying on behalf of Hungary’s Jews, even meeting with the likes of Eichmann himself. In one of his last ditch efforts, he bribed a member of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian forces collaborating with the Nazis, to warn German General August Schmidthuber that if he carried through with a plan to blow up the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, which contained over 70,000 souls, Wallenberg would personally ensure Schmidthuber’s prosecution and execution as a war criminal after the hostilities ended. The Nazi general backed down.
Wallenberg’s story ends in tragedy and mystery. He was last seen on January 17, 1945 en route to Russian Army headquarters, unsure if he was a visitor or a prisoner. The Russians imprisoned him on suspicion of being involved in espionage with the Americans, and claimed that he died in captivity on July 17, 1947. Other reports indicate that he survived into the 1980’s. We will probably never know.
When the Russians drove the Nazis out of Hungary, there were 120,000 Jewish survivors. Raoul Wallenberg is credited with saving the lives of at least 100,000 of them. His courage, resolution, and willingness to risk everything for the Jews of Hungary is an inspiration to all those who value human rights and human dignity.
We may not know what happened to Wallenberg. But we know what he accomplished. We know his story. And a tree bearing his name still grows in the Garden of the Righteous.