Raoul Wallenberg: Sweden’s Greatest Hero

In the annals of modern European history, Raoul Wallenberg’s name is synonymous with courage.[1] As a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg (1912-?) had all the right skills to save about 100,000 people from the Nazi death-camps. By the time Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann managed to deport more than 400,000 Jews.

In 1944, Wallenberg decided to get involved in rescuing the Jews of Hungary by issuing “Schutz Passes,” which were fake identification passes that indicated the carrier of this pass was protected by the Swedish government. By the end of the war, he issued over 15,000 passes that saved 15,000 lives. One of his Wallenberg’s good friends, the future Congressman Tom Lantos, described the fearless way Wallenberg would confront the Nazis at the train-stations, as Jews awaited to be sent to their slaughter, “He bluffed his way through,” said Tom Lantos, while adding,  “He had no official authorization. His only authority was his own courage. Any officer could have shot him to death. But he feared nothing for himself and committed himself totally. It was as if his courage was enough to protect himself from everything.”

However, Wallenberg also knew that these passes could only have limited success, other interventions were necessary. So, Wallenberg conceived of a new plan, the “Swedish Safe Houses,” along with soup kitchens, food, medical supplies, and clothing which they offered safety for the Hungarian Jews, who were protected by the Swedish government. Tens of thousands of Jews were that way saved by Wallenberg, or by the embassies of neutral countries who finally decided to follow in Wallenberg’s footsteps.

Only 200,000 Jews remained within the capital. When Wallenberg learned how in December of 1944 that the Nazis were about to slaughter the 70,000 Jews living in the Budapest Central Ghetto, Wallenberg intervened by sending a stern message to General August Schmidthuber that he would personally hold him accountable and would see to it that he would be tried as a war criminal after Germany surrendered to the Allies. Wallenberg’s use of intimidation along with bribery managed to help him save over 100,000 lives. Even after Eichmann ordered the infamous death march where 20,000 out of 58,000 people died, Wallenberg managed to distribute food, blankets, and other important supplies.

The Nazis were careful not to violate his diplomatic immunity out of respect for the Swedish government. One would not think that he was necessarily the heroic type, just by looking at him. But he was capable of being calm and amiable when he needed to be, and also become aggressive and forceful when the occasion demanded it. Because of his impressive personality, Wallenberg managed to achieve his objectives with impunity.

Wallenberg lived a couple blocks away from the SS Headquarters and from Adolf Eichmann. At a dinner meeting, Wallenberg confronted Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” on a number of occasions and even said to him, “Look, face it, you’ve lost the war. Why not give it up now?” Eichmann replied, “I have unfinished business—the extermination of the Hungarian Jews.” And within the same breath, Eichmann threatened Wallenberg, “Don’t think you’re immune just because you’re a diplomat and a neutral!” After his dinner with Eichmann, a truck, days later, Wallenberg’s car was firebombed (some say, it was rammed), and when Wallenberg mentioned the incident to Eichmann, in person, Eichmann immediately apologized. But after Wallenberg left the office, Eichmann said, “I will try again!”

Indeed, by the end of the war, the Nazis decided to go after Wallenberg, but being the man of integrity he was, he refused to flee. He would reply, “To me there’s no other choice. I’ve accepted this assignment and I could never return to Stockholm without the knowledge that I’d done everything in human power to save as many Jews as possible.” Ultimately, he was arrested—not by the Nazis, but by the Russians who assumed that Wallenberg was an American spy, and is reported to have died in a Soviet prison or mental hospital. Many claim to have seen him in Siberian prisons as late as the 1960s.

[1] Thomas Streissguth, Raoul Wallenberg: Swedish Diplomat and Humanitarian (New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2001).

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