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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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Photos, from left: German Federal Archives, Picture 101I-680-8285A-25, CC-BY-SA 3.0 / From Nina Lagergren’s private album, reproduction: Karl Gabor / Thomas Veres, reproduction: Karl Gabor

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.

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, in 1986 an honorary citizen of Israel and in 2013 Australia’s very first honorary citizen. There’s even an Australian stamp honouring Wallenberg.

His achievements live on

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.

Wallenberg’s 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.

Some of the Raoul Wallenberg monuments and memorials around the world:

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.

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.

In October 2016 Wallenberg was declared dead by the Swedish Tax Agency, which registers birth and deaths. His official date of death is 31 July 1952, a date that is purely formal since the authority must choose a date at least five years after his disappearance.

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.

Survivors: Eva Komlos and Shmuel Barizay

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 sometimes had to use unconventional methods, even bribery. This initially made the other diplomats of the Swedish Legation sceptical, 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.

Survivors: Chava Katz and Edit Vinkler

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: Judiska museet (left)
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.’

Tina Morad, winner of the Raoul Wallenberg Prize 2016 for her work with Swedish NGO Refugees Welcome Stockholm.

Photo: Julia Jane Persson

The Raoul Wallenberg Prize

The Raoul Wallenberg Prize is awarded to someone who works in the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg, mainly through raising awareness among children and youth regarding xenophobia, intolerance and equal rights. In 2016, the prize went to Tina Morad from Refugees Welcome Stockholm, ‘for having shown that every person can make a difference’. Her work mobilising, educating and engaging people bring together newly arrived and established youth.

Holocaust survivors Hédi Fried and Emerich Roth were awarded the prize in 2015 for their efforts to reach young people with their story – seen as crucial to future education about racism, xenophobia and antisemitism. The two have overcome the pain and trauma of their terrible experiences to engage in a lifelong effort to get the truth across and to promote both tolerance and compassion. Together they founded the Association of Holocaust Survivors in Sweden. The prize has been awarded twice before.

In 2014 the Raoul Wallenberg Prize was awarded to Emir Selimi, a young Romani, for his work to raise awareness among young people in Sweden about xenophobia and equal rights. He is founder of the organisation Young Romani.

In 2013 it went to Siavosh Derakhti, founder of the organisation Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism (today Young People Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia). He was honoured for ‘setting an example to Malmö and Sweden through his own private initiative and his voluntary efforts to combat xenophobia. He is an example to others through his activities and has shown that the determination of a single individual to reject growing intolerance can make an impact.’

Last updated: 24 January 2020