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Raoul Wallenberg – a man who made a difference

Armed only with his bravery and moral courage, Raoul Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. It’s a story that has inspired the world. Wallenberg’s achievements are a reminder of the continuing need to fight racism.

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Photo: Per Wissing/GT/Scanpix

One person can make a difference

In Jerusalem there is a memorial, Yad Vashem, dedicated to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II. A street named ‘Avenue of the Righteous’ runs through the area, bordered by 600 trees planted to honour the memory of non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi executioners. One of these trees bears the name of Raoul Wallenberg.

One of few US honorary citizens

Few Swedes have received as much international acclaim and attention as Raoul Wallenberg. In 1981, he became the second of a total of just seven people to be named honorary citizens of the United States. The others include Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa. In 1985, he was made an honorary citizen of Canada, and in 1986 an honorary citizen of Israel.

Would have turned 100 in 2012

Around the world there are monuments, statues, and other works of art that honour Wallenberg. His memory is preserved through books, music and films, and many buildings, squares, streets, schools and other institutions bear his name.

2012 was the centenary of Wallenberg’s birth. Yet his humanitarian achievements live on, a continuing reminder that every individual has a responsibility in the fight against racism. They show the importance of personal courage and of taking a stand – because one individual can make a difference.

Provided shelter in ‘Swedish houses’

A diplomat and businessman, Wallenberg was appointed legation secretary of the Swedish diplomatic mission in Budapest in June 1944. His job was to launch a rescue operation for Jews, and he became head of a special department. By issuing protective Swedish passports and renting Buildings – ‘Swedish houses’ where Jews could seek shelter – he saved tens of thousands of lives.

In January 1945, Wallenberg was imprisoned by Soviet forces. His fate remains unknown. Russia claims he died in a Soviet prison on 17 July 1947. However, many witness reports suggest he may have been alive much later.

Raoul Wallenberg (right) surrounded by colleagues in Budapest, 1944

Photo: Karl Gabor

Protective passports saved Jews

By issuing protective passports and creating safe houses, Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest.

In 1944, the United States established the War Refugee Board (WRB), an organisation whose task was to save Jews from Nazi persecution. Once the WRB understood that Sweden was making serious attempts to save Jews in Hungary, it set out to find someone who could launch a major rescue operation in Budapest. Wallenberg was offered the job and accepted.

Prior to Wallenberg’s arrival in Budapest, Valdemar Langlet, a delegate of the Swedish Red Cross, was assisting the Swedish Legation. Langlet rented buildings on behalf of the Red Cross and put up signs such as ‘Swedish Library’ and ‘Swedish Research Institute’ on their doors. These buildings then served as hiding places for Jews.

Printed thousands of passports

The first thing Wallenberg did was to design a protective Swedish passport. German and Hungarian bureaucrats had a weakness for symbology, so he had the passports printed in blue and yellow with the Swedish coat of arms in the center. He furnished the passports with appropriate stamps and signatures. Wallenberg managed to convince the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to approve 4,500 protective passports. In reality, he issued three times as many. Toward the end of the war, when conditions were desperate, Wallenberg issued a simplified version of his protective passport that bore only his signature. In the prevailing chaos, even this worked.

To achieve his objectives, Wallenberg used anything from bribery to threats of blackmail. The other diplomats of the Swedish Legation were initially skeptical of his unconventional methods. But when Wallenberg’s efforts yielded results, he quickly received backing. His department expanded, and there were several hundred people working there at its peak.

On 20 November 1944, Adolf Eichmann instigated a series of death marches, in which thousands of Jews were forced to leave Hungary on foot under extremely harsh conditions. Wallenberg helped them by distributing passports, food and medicine. In January 1945, the Russians arrived in Budapest. On 17 January,  Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet forces.

The search for Raoul Wallenberg

Wallenberg’s fate remains an intriguing mystery. There is still no clear picture of what happened to him after his arrest. In April 1945, it became clear that Wallenberg really had disappeared. Information from the Russians indicated that Wallenberg was not in the Soviet Union.

In the early 1950s, returning prisoners of war testified that they had met Wallenberg in prison in Moscow. This led to renewed Swedish efforts. In 1957, the Soviet government gave a new answer. They had found a handwritten document dated 17 July 1947, stating that ‘the prisoner Wallenberg [sic]… died last night in his cell.’

Sweden was skeptical but Russia stuck to this story for more than 30 years. In October 1989, demands from the Swedish government and Wallenberg’s family led to a breakthrough. Representatives of the family were invited to Moscow for a discussion. On that occasion, Wallenberg’s passport, pocket calendar and other possessions were handed over to the family. They had apparently been found during repairs at the KGB archives.

Two years later, the Swedish and Soviet governments agreed to appoint a joint working group to clear up the facts about Wallenberg’s fate. Their reports were published in January 2001. The group’s work did not produce any definitive answers; they concluded that many important questions were still unanswered, and that Wallenberg’s dossier could therefore not be closed.

A diplomatic failure

In October 2001, the Swedish government appointed an official commission of inquiry, the Eliasson Commission, to investigate the actions of Sweden’s foreign policy establishment in the Raoul Wallenberg case. In 2003, a report was issued in which Swedish political moves were summarised under the heading ‘A diplomatic failure’.

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/Scanpix

The right man for the job

How was it possible for one person to save so many lives? Raoul Wallenberg was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Raoul Wallenberg was not the heroic type in the conventional sense, but he was fearless and a skilled negotiator and organiser. That was how the Swedish diplomat Per Anger (1913-2002) described him. Anger was stationed in Budapest during the war as a secretary at the Swedish Legation. Furthermore, Wallenberg’s background and upbringing furnished him with unique skills.

Studied architecture abroad

The Wallenberg family is one of Sweden’s most prominent, with generations of leading bankers, diplomats and statesmen. Raoul’s father was a cousin of Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, two of Sweden’s best-known financiers and industrialists of the 20th century. The plan was for Raoul to go into banking, but he was more interested in architecture and trade. In 1931, he went to study architecture at the University of Michigan in the United States. There, he also studied English, German and French.

On returning to Sweden in 1935, he found that his US degree did not qualify him to work as an architect. Between 1935 and 1936, Wallenberg was employed at a branch office of the Holland Bank in Haifa, present-day Israel. During this time, he first came into contact with Jews who had fled Hitler’s Germany. Their stories moved him deeply.

In 1931, Raoul Wallenberg went to the US to study architecture, English, German and French.

Photos: (from the left) Judiska museet
and Karl Gabor.

Worked his way to the top

Back in Stockholm, he obtained a job at the Central European Trading Company, an import-export company with operations in Stockholm and central Europe, owned by Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew. Wallenberg’s linguistic skills, and the fact that he could travel freely around Europe, made him the perfect business partner for Lauer. It was not long before he was a major shareholder and the international manager of the firm. His travels to Nazi-occupied France and to Germany soon taught him how German bureaucracy worked – knowledge that would prove highly valuable.

Protected by his diplomatic status

Wallenberg was also a talented actor, which was a big help in his clashes with the Nazis. He could be calm, humorous and warm, or aggressive and intimidating. He could flatter and bribe one occasion, and shout and threaten on another. The Nazis were impressed by him and usually gave in to his demands. Another important factor was his Swedish diplomatic status, which the Germans did not dare to violate.

The last time Per Anger saw Wallenberg, on 10 January 10 1945, he urged him to seek safety. Wallenberg replied, ‘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.’

Traces of Raoul Wallenberg around the world

Memorials and monuments to Raoul Wallenberg have been erected in many countries. Here are a few of them.

Five black diabase columns, mined from Swedish bedrock, were erected in New York as a tribute to Raoul Wallenberg.
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Scanpix.

Raoul Wallenberg’s sister, Nina Lagergren, visits her brother’s monument in Budapest.
Photo: Szilard Koszticsak/Scanpix.

A briefcase in bronze by Ulla and Gustaf Kraitz marks Wallenberg’s birthplace in Stockholm.
Photo: Jack Mikrut/Scanpix.

Courageous people make a difference

Many other heroes have fought in the same way as Raoul Wallenberg, on the side of the weak, against oppression, violence and persecution. Four of them are Anton Abele, Stig Wallin, Stieg Larsson and Ingrid Segerstedt-Wiberg.

Left to right: Member of Parliament Anton Abele.
Photo: Claudio Bresciani/Scanpix;
5-Minutes-to-12 leader Stig Wallin.
Photo: Gunnar Stattin;
Journalist and author Stieg Larsson.
Photo: Jan Collsiöö/Scanpix;
Author and politician Inger Segerstedt-Wiberg. Photo: Anders Wiklund/Scanpix

Campaigning against street violence

Anton Abele, born in 1992, got involved in a campaign against street violence after Swedish teenager Riccardo Campogiani was beaten to death in Stockholm on 6 October 2007. Abele created a Facebook group called Bevara oss från gatuvåldet (‘save us from street violence’), which soon had over 100,000 members. On 12 October 2007, Abele arranged a demonstration in which over 10,000 people took part. The same year, he founded the organisation Stoppa gatuvåldet (‘stop street violence’).

In October 2010, Abele became Sweden’s second-youngest-ever Member of Parliament when he took his seat for the Moderate Party.

The 5-Minutes-to-12 Movement

The 5-Minutes-to-12 Movement works to shape public opinion against xenophobia and racism. The movement was formed in Härnösand, Sweden, in 1988, by young people reacting to violence and the harassment of refugees. The name is derived from the time they held their demonstrations, five minutes to 12 on Sundays.

The leader of the movement was Stig Wallin (1943-2009). His daughter Sara, who was also involved in the movement, was murdered together with a friend in 1989. The murderer was a young refugee. Wallin’s mission in life became to carry on his daughter’s commitment. From this tragedy, he found his driving force, taking a stand for reconciliation instead of hatred and revenge.

Gave a voice to anti-fascism

The journalist and author Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) is best known for his Millennium trilogy. He is also known for his strong commitment to democracy and anti-fascism.

In the mid-1980s, Larsson was involved in setting up the Stop Racism project. In 1988, he and Anna-Lena Lodenius, a fellow journalist and author, started one of Sweden’s largest ever mappings of organised racism. The result was the book Extremhögern (‘the far right’), published in 1991.

Larsson was also one of the founders of the Expo Foundation and Expo magazine. The foundation maps, monitors and provides information about extreme right-wing and racist tendencies in society. The magazine’s objective is to defend democracy and the freedom of expression and fight racist, anti-Semitic and totalitarian tendencies in society. In 1999, Larsson became editor in chief, a position he held until his death. He died of a heart attack on 9 November 2004.

Pioneer for human rights

The journalist, author and politician Ingrid Segerstedt-Wiberg (1911-2010) devoted her life to fighting for human rights, freedom, peace and democracy. As the daughter of newspaper editor and Nazi opponent Torgny Segerstedt, she was involved early on in refugee work and in opposing Nazism. Her engagement in international issues resulted in assignments with the UN, the Nordic Council and Unicef.

Useful links

Expo magazine and the Expo Foundation
Forum for Living History
The Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States
The Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism
Youth against Racism (Sweden’s largest anti-racism youth organisation)
Searchable database of testimonies and documents concerning Raoul Wallenberg
The Wallenberg Foundation of New Jersey

Last updated: 25 March 2014

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