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American Experience | America and the Holocaust | Article

Raoul Wallenberg (1912-?)

In December 1944, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg attended a small dinner party in Budapest; also at the table was the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. The two men were in Hungary on opposing missions: Wallenberg was there to rescue Jews; Eichmann was there to kill them. Their conversation was barbed. The war was almost over, Wallenberg pointed out. Why didn't Eichmann give up his task? Eichmann replied that he would do his job until the very end so that when he walked to the gallows he would know he had successfully carried out his assignment. The Nazi added that Wallenberg wasn't immune from danger, even a neutral diplomat, he warned, could meet with an accident. But before the Nazi could execute his threat, the Russians entered Budapest, arrested the Swede and he disappeared forever into the Soviet Gulag. 

In June of 1944, the 32-year-old Wallenberg, a businessman and a member of one of the wealthiest and most illustrious families in Sweden, had volunteered to go to Budapest to help save Hungarian Jews. Although Wallenberg was sent as an attaché to the Swedish legation in Budapest, he became in effect the representative of the recently established U.S. War Refugee Board. Its mission was to rescue as many of the remaining European Jews as possible. And the largest community of surviving Jews was in Hungary. Until March of 1944, Hungary had been a relatively safe haven for Jews, but on March 19th, Hitler, frustrated by the Hungarian government's refusal to deport Jews, sent in occupying forces. Eichmann soon began rounding up Jews in the provinces and by May 15, he began sending Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July. By then the city had already been turned into a living hell for Jews. Their homes had been seized, and as many as 125 were crammed into small apartments. The Nazis had confiscated all Jewish businesses and bank accounts. Jews could not use the city's parks, entertain visitors, or use air raid shelters, and uniformed members of the Hungarian fascist party regularly attacked Jews on the street. In August, the Budapest Jews, who had survived earlier rounds of deportations, were now petrified that they also would be sent to Auschwitz. 

Within a month of his arrival, Wallenberg had come up with a plan to save Jewish lives. He persuaded the Swedish government to issue protective Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews. By January of 1945, Wallenberg had distributed Swedish papers to at least 20,000 Budapest Jews, 13,000 of whom he had sheltered in buildings above which he flew the Swedish flag. Writing home to his mother, he noted, "Everywhere you see tragedies of the greatest proportions. But the days and nights are so full of work that one seldom has time to react." 

In carrying out his mission, Wallenberg frequently put himself in danger. On one occasion, armed Hungarian fascists began seizing Jews in one of the Swedish-protected buildings. Wallenberg arrived on the scene and shouted: "This is Swedish territory.... If you want to take them, you'll have to shoot me first." At other times he would board deportation trains, handing out passes and then demanding that the people holding them be let off the train. 

Life for the Jews in Budapest got even worse in mid-October of 1944. With the Soviet Red Army just 100 miles away from Budapest, Hungarian head of state Miklós Horthy considered signing an armistice with the Allies. The Nazis acted swiftly, forcing him to resign and replacing him with the fascist Ferenc Szalasi. Throughout the fall and winter, Szalasi's anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party unleashed a reign of terror, killing more than 10,000 Jews, leaving their dead bodies in the streets or throwing them in the Danube River. In November, the Nazis, in dire need of slave labor, began marching Jews from Budapest to Austria. Thousands of them died on route. Wallenberg carried food and medical supplies to the Jews on the marches and frequently succeeded in removing Jews from the columns under the pretext that they were protected Swedish citizens. In the last few days before Budapest fell to the Russians, the Hungarian fascists were planning the swift killing of the 115,000 inhabitants of the Budapest Jewish ghetto. Wallenberg warned that if the action were carried out, the perpetrators would be tried as war criminals. The ghetto was left alone. Wallenberg is frequently credited with saving its inhabitants. 

In the last few weeks of the war, Wallenberg knew that he was a target for the Nazis, and he successfully evaded them by hiding in different houses. But on January 17, 1945, he vanished. He was last seen leaving Budapest by car to meet Soviet military officials in Eastern Hungary. It's not clear why the Soviets were interested in the Swedish diplomat, but it's possible he was suspected of being an Anglo-American spy. Whatever their motivation for imprisoning Wallenberg, the Soviets continued for years to deny any knowledge of his disappearance. Finally, in 1957, Deputy Foreign Minister Andre Gromyko claimed that Wallenberg had died ten years earlier of a heart attack in a Soviet prison. The announcement didn't end speculation that Wallenberg was still alive in the Soviet Union. However, despite reports that surfaced into the 1980's from former Soviet prisoners, who claimed that Wallenberg was still a Soviet captive, authorities in the West have never been able to find out for certain what ultimately happened to the Swedish hero. 

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