THE MAN WHO SAVED THOUSANDS

Wherever I go there always seems to be a Swedish connection – or maybe because of my novels, I’m always subconsciously looking.  And it wasn’t difficult to find one on a very recent trip to the Hungarian capital, Budapest.  His name is immediate – there is a quay on the Danube named after him.  There’s also a street in Pest, a dedicated garden at the Great Synagogue and a memorial in Buda.  You can’t miss Raoul Wallenberg.

In March 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary after it looked like their client state was seeking peace with the advancing Russians.  They immediately started deporting huge numbers of rural Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  The architect of this murderous mass movement, based in Budapest, was Adolf Eichmann.  It was in the July of that year that the thirty-one-year-old Wallenberg arrived in the city when Eichmann was turning his attention to the Jewish population of the Hungarian capital.  The Swede was there under the auspices of the War Refugee Board, which had been set up in the United States in the same year to save as many European Jews as possible.  Wallenberg was eventually chosen despite his family having existing commercial relationships with Nazi Germany.  Being from a neutral country, his diplomatic immunity would carry some weight.

He was an interesting choice.  Related to two of Sweden’s best-known financiers and industrialists, Raoul turned his back on banking and studied architecture at the University of Michigan.  On returning home and finding his American degree didn’t allow him to practice in Sweden, he ended up in the family business.  Between 1935 and 1936 he worked in the Haifa office of the bank and came across many Jews who had recently fled Hitler’s Germany to what is present-day Israel.  Back in Stockholm, he joined the Central European Trading Company, owned by Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew.  This job took him to Germany and Nazi-occupied France and soon he became familiar with how German bureaucracy worked.  It was to stand him in good stead when he arrived at the Swedish Legation in Budapest.

Initially, Wallenberg set about handing out passports to Jews who had Swedish connections.  Soon he expanded this to cover any Jew.  He managed to convince the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to approve 4,500 protective passports (known as “Schutzpass”) which he had printed in the national colours of blue and yellow and in the middle of which was the Swedish crest.  Then the passports were given the appropriate stamps and signatures.  In fact, he issued three times that number.  Later on, when conditions become increasingly dire, he issued simplified versions of these passports which bore nothing more than his signature.  Even this worked in the turmoil of a city under imminent threat from the Russians.

He was far from alone in his efforts to save Budapest’s Jews.  Others may, in fact, have saved more individuals.  Fellow Swedes, Per Anger and Carl-Ivan Danielsson; Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz; Portuguese representatives, Sampaio Garrido and Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho; as well as Italian businessman, Giorgio Perlasca who posed as a Spanish diplomat, all played their parts in distributing passports.  They also rented thirty-two properties in which to hide Jews under the protection of the Swedish flag with signs such as “The Swedish Research Institute” and “The Swedish Library” hung on their doors.  These buildings eventually housed 10,000 people.  But what seemed to mark out Wallenberg in particular was his courage in facing up to the Nazis and the vicious Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists on many occasions.  On one such he climbed onto the roof of an Auschwitz-bound train and handed out passports despite being shot at by Arrow Cross guards.

During the bloody battle for control of Budapest, Wallenberg was summoned by the Russians and arrested on January 17th, 1945.  He was moved to Moscow and nothing was heard of him again.  Various stories emanated from the Soviet Union as to his fate and it has never been satisfactorily explained when and where he died.  The Swedish government have never made a great effort to find out.  In all probability, he was executed in the Lubyanka prison in July 1947.  The truth of his disappearance is presumably hidden away in some dusty file in Moscow.

Though Wallenberg may not have saved as many lives as some have claimed – often he was used as a propaganda tool against the Soviets in the Cold War after his disappearance – his personal heroism was unquestioned.  His ability to act independently, test boundaries and break rules was in contrast to his country’s conformist culture and the pro-German Swedish Foreign Office of the time.  Many in the Foreign Office, keen not to upset Nazi Germany or Hungary, thought his approach was “un-diplomatic”, and he often chafed at their lack of support.  He overshadowed other diplomats, and a former Swedish ambassador to Hungary admitted that they didn’t want him back when he disappeared, which might explain why so little was officially done to trace him.  While the US, Canada, Australia, Israel and Hungary have all made him an honorary citizen, his homeland didn’t even give him an official memorial until 1997.  And it wasn’t until 2001 that the then Swedish Prime Minister, Göran Persson, publicly apologised to Wallenberg’s family for the lack of effort to save Raoul or achieve any sort of closure.  Sweden only officially declared Wallenberg dead in 2016.

Wander up the lower slopes of Gellért Hill, which overlook the Danube, and turn off into the quiet, leafy Minerva Street, and you’ll find a large, faded yellow house with a tower and Art Nouveau gates.  It’s now divided into apartments but in 1944 and 1945 it was the home of the Swedish legation.  Here many frightened Jews took shelter and were saved.  On the perimeter wall is a plaque with an inscription and the likenesses of three heads – Carl-Ivan Danielsson’s, Per Anger’s and Raoul Wallenberg’s.  Yet another reminder of the man who saved thousands of lives.