All Commentary
Friday, November 1, 1996

Raoul Wallenberg, Great Angel of Rescue

Wallenberg Single-Handedly Saved Thousands of Jews


How can a single individual fight tyranny? What can be done for liberty against overwhelming odds? There are few stories as stirring as that of Raoul Wallenberg.

He defied the evil forces of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, two of history’s worst mass murderers. He confronted racists, torturers, assassins, and even Hitler’s chief executioner, Adolf Eichmann, while saving almost 100,000 lives. More astounding, he saved lives inside enemy territory, since escape was impossible. He was armed only with a pistol, which he never used.

Working in Nazi-controlled Hungary, Wallenberg liberated thousands of Jews from boxcars bound for the gas chambers. He pulled Jews out of the death marches. He saved Jews from being shot and dumped into the Danube. He singlehandedly thwarted Nazi plans to massacre 70,000 Jews remaining in the Budapest Central Ghetto.

After the Red Army captured Budapest, Wallenberg was taken away by Stalin’s dreaded NKVD secret police. Apparently they tortured him and tried to turn him into a Soviet spy, but he remained defiant.

Wallenberg, greatest libertarian hero of the twentieth century, vanished into the wretched Soviet gulag and continues to be an agonizing mystery today. But for people around the world, he is the Angel of Rescue, and the mere mention of his name brings tears.

Wallenberg certainly didn’t look like the stuff that heroes are made of. He was medium height with brown eyes, a large nose, small chin, and receding curly brown hair. Tibor Baranski, an associate, described Wallenberg as a thin man, rather shy, and virtually fearless. He dressed elegantly and was always clean-shaven.

Bjorn Burckhardt, who had met Wallenberg in South Africa, described him this way: Raoul did not do things in a normal manner. His way of thinking was so winding and involuted. But his intellect impressed everyone. And he could outtalk anyone. Perhaps his greatest asset was his charm, which influenced people to respect him.

Wallenberg, recalled Swedish diplomat Per Anger, was not a superman type. We met in Stockholm some years before he came on his mission to Budapest in 1944, and we became very good friends. I learned to know Raoul more as an intellectual. . . . He spoke with a soft voice and sometimes looked like a dreamer. . . . It did not take long, however, till you discovered that he had a remarkable inner strength, a core of fighting spirit. Furthermore, he was a clever negotiator and organizer, unconventional, and extraordinarily inventive. I became convinced that no one was better qualified for the assignment to Budapest than Raoul.

Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg was born August 4, 1912, in his maternal grandparents’ summer home on Kapptsta, an island near Stockholm. He descended from a long line of Lutheran capitalists who built banks, factories, ships, and railroads—some 50 businesses altogether. His father Raoul Wallenberg, Sr., a 23-year-old naval officer, died of abdominal cancer three months before young Raoul was born. His mother, Maj Wising, was the great-granddaughter of a Jewish jeweler.

Raoul’s paternal grandfather, Gustaf Wallenberg, Swedish ambassador to Turkey, became his mentor. Gustaf was an individualist, an entrepreneur, and a free trader who believed people should be bound together by peaceful commercial relations rather than military alliances.

Gustaf arranged for Raoul to broaden his vision by spending summers in France and Germany, and he learned French and German as well as English. To better understand America, Raoul enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned an architecture degree in 1935. Then Gustaf arranged for the young man to serve as an intern with the Wallenberg family bank in Capetown, South Africa, where Raoul discovered that banking wasn’t for him. After six months, he became an intern with a Dutch business in Haifa, Palestine. He heard European refugees tell horrifying stories of Nazi barbarism. I think I have the character for positive action rather than to sit at a desk and say no to people, he wrote Gustaf.

An Unpromising Future

Back in Stockholm, Wallenberg seemed destined for failure. He unsuccessfully tried his hand as an architect, an importer, and a speculator. Discouraged, he asked his father’s cousins, Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg, about a job at their Enskilda Bank, but they vetoed the idea.

Gustaf Wallenberg died in March 1937, leaving Raoul without a sponsor. He soon discovered that each branch of the Wallenberg family protects its own kin but not the others. His mother, who had remarried health services administrator Frederik von Dardel, wasn’t in a position to help.

Wallenberg heard about a job with Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew whose Stockholm-based company Mellaneuropeiska Handelsaktiebolaget (Middle European Trading Company, or Meropa as it was called) mainly shipped grain, chickens, and goose-liver paté from Hungary to Sweden. Since Hungary had allied itself with Hitler in 1941, Lauer couldn’t safely travel through Europe, so he needed a Gentile fluent in the major European languages and adept at negotiation. Wallenberg went to work. While traveling through Germany and occupied France, Wallenberg became skilled at negotiating with Nazis. And through Lauer’s family, he got to know the Budapest Jewish community.

“The Final Solution”

January 20, 1942, in a villa at 56 Am-Grossen-Wannsee, Wannsee, a town outside Berlin: a key meeting of high-ranking officers of the SS, Hitler’s elite secret police. Among those present were General Reinhard Heydrich and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann. They agreed it wasn’t practical to rid Europe of Jews through emigration. The Jews had to be deported east and exterminated. In his conference notes, Eichmann described this as the final solution. The killing agent would be Zyklon B, a compound of hydrogen and cyanide which had been developed to kill rodents. It turns into lethal gas at room temperature. Orders went out to build gigantic gas chambers.

The Allies soon learned about these plans, but they did little. President Franklin Roosevelt rejected pleas that Allies should take direct action against the Nazi extermination campaign. Convinced that winning the war was the fastest way to stop the Nazis, Allied military leaders claimed they couldn’t afford to divert any forces—even though U.S. bombers flew right over Auschwitz and hit other targets only five miles away. By 1944, the only European Jewish community that hadn’t been wiped out was in Hungary, an Axis power which still retained some independence from Germany. Following German losses on the eastern front, Hungarian diplomats started sounding out the Allies for an armistice. This would have cut off Germany from its Axis allies Romania and Bulgaria—and from vital oil supplies. Accordingly, Hitler ordered his soldiers to occupy Hungary on March 19, 1944.

Among the arrivals was Adolf Eichmann, who came with a mile-long column of his special forces. Eichmann headed the Gestapo’s Section IV B4 (Jewish affairs) and organized the extermination of Jews in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. If Nazi political wrangling hadn’t gotten in the way, he would have exterminated Jews in Poland, too. He had developed a four-step killing process: mark Jews by requiring them to wear yellow Star of David patches on their outer garments; collect Jews from their scattered residences, commonly in the middle of the night; isolate Jews in ghettos; and, finally, deport them to the death camps.

Eichmann didn’t want Jews to panic and disrupt his plans before he was ready, so he ordered leading members of the Budapest Jewish community to form a Jewish Council. He told them what they desperately wanted to hear: I will visit your museum soon, because I am interested in Jewish cultural affairs. You can trust me and talk freely to me—as you see, I am quite frank with you. If the Jews behave quietly and work, you will be able to keep all of your community institutions.

On May 15, 1944, the death trains began rolling to Auschwitz. There were as many as five trains a day, each with about 10,000 Jews. By mid-June, 147 trains had taken 437,000 Jews. It went like a dream, Eichmann bragged.

At last, the Allies stirred. Western diplomats pressured Hungarian representatives. The Pope urged the 75-year-old Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy to stop the slaughter. The American Air Force and Britain’s Royal Air Force bombed Budapest. None of these external methods worked.

Roosevelt approved an effort to save some Jews by working within Hungary. Funding would be provided through the War Refugee Board, but Americans, as belligerents, couldn’t operate openly behind enemy lines. The War Refugee Board’s representative in Sweden, Iver Olsen, was assigned the task of finding somebody from a neutral country. This person had to be a Gentile, fluent in European languages, capable of dealing successfully with the Nazis—and unimaginably courageous. Olsen heard Wallenberg’s name in the elevator of the eight-story building on Strandvagen Street where American diplomatic offices were located. He heard it from Kálmán Lauer, whose import-export company’s offices were in the same building. Olsen arranged a meeting and was impressed with the 31-year-old Wallenberg’s passion and apparent ability to size up people quickly.

Wallenberg didn’t get much guidance, because nobody knew exactly what would be involved. He spelled out his terms. He must have diplomatic status—he was named Second Secretary of the Swedish legation. He could send his own messages by diplomatic courier. If funds provided by the U.S. War Refugee Board and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were inadequate, he could raise funds by other means. He could contact anyone including the ruler of the country and the anti-Nazi underground. He could use whatever means he considered necessary, including bribery. He could provide asylum to persecuted people with Swedish documents. After these terms were accepted, Wallenberg spent 48 hours reading diplomatic messages between Stockholm, Washington, and Budapest.

On July 6, 1944, Wallenberg caught an airplane from Stockholm to Berlin, and two days later was on a train for Budapest. His train probably passed the 29-boxcar train carrying the last of Hungary’s rural Jews to Auschwitz.

According to Nazi statistics, there were about 230,000 Jews left in Budapest. Eichmann relished the prospect of shipping them out in a few days, but Regent Horthy still retained nominal independence from Germany, and he suspended the deportations. While he was certainly anti-Semitic—he had approved laws persecuting Jews—he feared execution as a war criminal by the Russians advancing in the East or the Americans and English who had landed in Normandy.

Wallenberg’s Mission Begins

Wallenberg arrived in Budapest July 9. The city had representatives from five neutral nations—Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey, as well as Sweden. There were also representatives from the International Red Cross and the Pope. Some of these had already made limited efforts to save Jews. The Swedish representative had issued about 650 protective passes to Jews who could document family or business connections to Sweden. The Swiss issued several hundred emigration certificates to British-controlled Palestine, although it was impossible for these people to leave Budapest.

Wallenberg spent a couple of weeks getting to know the Jewish community better, finding recruits, and building an organization. Budapest Jews were so demoralized, and Wallenberg looked so unfit for the task, with his fresh face and clean-cut dark blue suit, that he had considerable difficulty persuading people they could help themselves.

Wallenberg recognized there were several ways he could appeal to those in power. First, Horthy’s puppet regime did want the legitimacy that comes with international acceptance. Second, Swedish representatives handled Hungarian and German business in several countries. Third, many in the regime feared possible execution by the Allies after the war. Finally, there were many others whose cooperation could be bought with food or cash bribes.

Wallenberg took immediate steps to make his mission look impressive. He designed a Schutz-Pass certificate which was much snazzier than the drab Swedish passport. He gave it an official-looking triple crown of the Royal Swedish government. He had it printed in Sweden’s colors, yellow and blue. He embellished it with seals, stamps, and signatures.

These passes suggested the holder had some kind of connection to Sweden and intended to leave Hungary for Sweden. Until that could happen, the holder was under the protection of the Royal Swedish Legation.

Although these Schutzpasse had no standing in international law, they worked. One of Wallenberg’s drivers noted that he understood the German mentality. He knew that Germans reacted to formal documents and authority.

It’s likely, too, that the Nazis tolerated the passes as long as they affected a minority of the Jews. The Nazis probably figured they could disregard the passes whenever they wished, but Wallenberg’s strategy was delay. With the Allies winning the war, he believed that the longer people could be maintained under Swedish protection, the more survivors there would be.

Wallenberg got permission from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to issue 1,500 Schutzpasse, but he kept after officials there, and they upped his quota to 4,500. Eventually, he issued over three times that many.

But Jews couldn’t leave Budapest, and their situation became ever more desperate. Wallenberg stockpiled food, clothing, and medicine. He built up a staff of around 400 people with shifts working around the clock, and they established medical facilities, nurseries, and food distribution points.

Wallenberg versus Eichmann

Wallenberg feared that Horthy’s order suspending the deportations wouldn’t last long, so he tried to get as many Jews as possible under international protection. He needed housing. This meant dealing with Eichmann, who controlled properties taken from Jews. Eichmann liked to spend evenings at Budapest’s mirror-lined Arizona nightclub, and Wallenberg observed him closely there—and twice bribed headwaiters to seat him at a table next to Eichmann. Then Eichmann proposed a get-acquainted discussion. Wallenberg explained that he wanted about 40 Budapest buildings for his operations. Eichmann asked how much he would pay, and Wallenberg replied the equivalent of $200,000 in Swedish kroner. Eichmann scoffed at such a low price for Jews, but he was willing to talk, because from his standpoint wherever the Jews lived, he would get them.

Wallenberg ended up renting 32 Budapest buildings, each displaying the Swedish flag. They became the core of the international ghetto, which eventually accommodated some 50,000 Jews. Usually, they were moved in under the cover of night, so the individuals would be less vulnerable to attack, and the government wouldn’t be aware how many Jews were sheltered. Wallenberg provided food for these people. He maintained hospitals on Taytra and Wahrmann streets, serving 200 patients at a time.

He hit on a brazen strategy which saved more and more Jews from the death trains. As one of his drivers explained: Raoul usually had with him a book with names of passport holders. Sometimes the book had all blank pages. When he arrived at the train, he then made up Jewish names and began calling out. Three or four usually had passports. For those who didn’t, I stood behind Raoul with another fifty or more unfilled passports. It only took me ten seconds to write in their names. We handed them out calmly and said, `Oh, I’m terribly sorry you couldn’t get to the legation to pick it up. Here it is. We brought it to you.’ The passport holder showed it to the SS and was free.

On October 15, 1944, Horthy announced that his government was negotiating with the Russians for an armistice. This news triggered a Nazi coup. Horthy was out, and fanatical Arrow Cross (Hungarian fascist party) head Otto Skorzeny was in command. He ordered that the deportations of Jews be resumed. Wallenberg’s whole campaign was in jeopardy. He redoubled his efforts.

I was forced out of one of the Swedish safe houses and taken to a brick factory yard, Ferenc Friedman remembered. It would be only minutes before we boarded the death trains. Suddenly two cars drove up. There was Wallenberg in the first one, with Hungarian officials and German officers in the second car. He jumped out, shouting that all those with Swedish papers were under his protection. I was one of 150 saved that day. None of the others ever came back.

Dr. Stephen I. Lazarovitz described what it was like to be saved by Wallenberg: I was an intern, just before my final exams. When the Arrow Cross came to power I was not allowed to continue my studies and was drafted to a forced labor camp in Budapest. On October 28 we were yanked to the freight railway station of Jósefváros, where we boarded the freight wagons. The doors of the wagons were locked from the outside.

Suddenly two cars drove up between the railway tracks. Wallenberg jumped out from the first car, accompanied by his Hungarian aides. He went to the commanding police officer in charge, talked to him, and presented official papers. Soon the officer made an announcement. He said that those who had authentic Swedish protective passports should step down from the wagon and stand in line to show their papers. Should anybody step down from the cattle cars who had no Swedish protective passport, he would be executed on the spot. The authenticity of the passports would be checked by him and by Wallenberg from the books of the Swedish embassy, which Mr. Wallenberg had brought with him.

In the meantime, Mr. Wallenberg’s aides pulled out a folding table from the car, opened it, placed it between the rail tracks, and put the big embassy books on top of it. The commanding Nazi police officer put his gun in front of the books. We, who were in the cattle cars, watched all this from the small barred windows of the cattle cars. The doors were opened.

I did not know what to do because my protective passport was not authentic but forged. Suddenly I saw from the window that one of the aides was Leslie Geiger, a member of the Hungarian national hockey team, a patient of my father, and a personal friend. I decided to step down from the cattle car. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

I stood in line for an hour because I was at the end of the line. When I was close to the table, I stepped forward, went to Leslie Geiger, and whispered in his ear that my passport was forged. I asked him if he could help me. He said that he would try. When it was my turn, Leslie Geiger whispered a few words in Wallenberg’s ear. Raoul Wallenberg looked at me, holding my forged passport in his hand, and said, `I remember this doctor. I gave him his passport personally. Let’s not waste our time because it’s late. We need him now at the Emergency Hospital of the Swedish embassy.’ The Nazi commanding officer then said, `Let’s not waste our time! Next.’

On another occasion, according to Wallenberg driver Sandor Ardai, we had come to a station where a train full of Jews was on the point of leaving for Germany and the death camps. The officer of the guard did not want to let us enter. Raoul Wallenberg then climbed up on the roof of the train and handed in many protective passports through the windows. The Arrow Cross men fired their guns and cried to him to go away, but he continued calmly to hand out passports to the hands which reached for them. But I believe that the men with the guns were impressed by his courage and on purpose aimed above him. Afterwards, he managed to get all Jews with passports out from the train.

In early November, Nyilas, as Arrow Cross goons were called, held several hundred Jews at Dohany Synagogue. Joseph Kovacs recalled that on November 4, Wallenberg burst into the temple and stood himself in front of the altar and made this announcement: `All those who have Swedish protective passes should stand up.’ That same night a few hundred Jews were freed, and they returned to their houses under the protection of Hungarian policemen.

Dr. Jonny Moser, one of Wallenberg’s assistants: I remember when we were told . . . that 800 Jews were to be transported away. The deportations had started on foot to Mauthausen. Wallenberg caught up with them at the frontier. `Who of you has a Swedish protective passport? Raise your hand!’ he cried. On his order I ran between the columns and told the people to raise their hand, whether they had a passport or not. He then took command of all who had raised their hand, and his attitude was such that nobody of the guards opposed it, so extraordinary was the convincing force of his attitude.

The Angel of Rescue

After Regent Horthy was overthrown, Eichmann returned to Budapest, but he faced serious obstacles. Since the Red Army was advancing from the east and south, roads to the Polish death camps were blocked. The German military needed all available railroad capacity for moving war matériel. The only way out of Hungary was to Austria, so Eichmann decided Jews would walk the death march to the Austrian border 25 miles away. Between mid-November and mid-December, some 40,000 Jews were forced out of their homes or picked up on the street, then ordered to march 15 to 20 miles a day without food, in frigid weather. A quarter of them died.

According to Per Anger, a compatriot of Wallenberg, The persecuted Jews’ only hope was Wallenberg. Like a rescuing angel he often appeared at the very last moment. Just when a deportation was about to start . . . he used to arrive at the station with a written . . . permission to set free all Jews with Swedish protection passports. . . . [He] manufactured all kinds of identification and protection documents on an endless scale. Uncountable were those Jews who during the march toward Vienna had given up all hope, when suddenly they received from one of Wallenberg’s `flying squadrons’ a Swedish protection document, like their ancestors once upon a time during their long journey were rescued by manna from Heaven.

Susan Tabor remembered: My mother, my husband, and I had been two nights without food. Then we heard words, human words, the first we had heard in what seemed like an eternity. It was Raoul Wallenberg. He gave us that needed sense that we were still human beings. We had been among thousands taken to stay at a brick factory outside Budapest. We were without food, without water, without sanitation facilities. Wallenberg told us he would try and return with safety passes. He also said that he would try to get medical attention and sanitary facilities. And true to his word, soon afterward some doctors and nurses came from the Jewish hospital. But what stands out most about Raoul Wallenberg is that he came himself. He talked to us, and . . . he showed that there was a human being who cared about us.

Wallenberg bombarded the fascist Arrow Cross government with memoranda demanding an end to barbarism. At the very least, these memoranda let officials know that they were being observed and could be held accountable.

Wallenberg cultivated friends at the highest level. He even tried to influence Eichmann himself. Shortly before Christmas 1944, he invited the Nazi to dinner. The war is over, Wallenberg told Eichmann. Why don’t you go while you still can and let the living live? Eichmann: I have my job to do.

Swedish diplomat Lars Berg reported that Wallenberg fearlessly tore Nazi doctrines to shreds and predicted that Nazism and its leaders would meet a speedy and complete destruction. I must say that these were rather unusual, caustic words from a Swede who was far away from his country and totally at the mercy of the powerful German antagonist Eichmann and his henchmen.

Stunned by Wallenberg’s bold attack, Eichmann reportedly replied: I admit that you are right, Mr. Wallenberg. I actually never believed in Nazism as such, but it has given me power and wealth. I know this pleasant life will soon be over. My planes will no longer bring me women and wines from Paris nor any other delicacies from the Orient. My horses, my dogs, my palace here in Budapest will soon be taken over by the Russians, and I myself, an SS officer, will be shot on the spot. But for me there is no rescue any more. If I obey my orders from Berlin and exercise my power ruthlessly enough here in Budapest, I shall be able to prolong my days of grace.

Eichmann added: I warn you . . . I shall do my very utmost to defeat you. And your Swedish diplomatic passport will not help you, if I consider it necessary to do away with you. Even a neutral diplomat might meet with accidents. Several days later, a big German truck smashed into Wallenberg’s car and totaled it. Wallenberg, who wasn’t inside, filed a formal complaint, and Eichmann declared: I will try again.

The Red Army began its siege of Budapest on December 8, 1944. That day, in his last letter to his mother Wallenberg wrote, I really thought I would be with you for Christmas . . . I hope the peace so longed for is no longer so far away.

Wallenberg’s people were increasingly at risk. Tibor Vayda: There were more than three hundred men and women at our office, which was also a Swedish protected house at 4 Ulloi Street. The Nyilas stormed in and shouted, `Wallenberg is not here. Everybody, get out. Swedish protection means nothing. Protective passes mean nothing.’ People wanted to take their luggage, but the Nyilas sneered. `You don’t need luggage because you will be dead soon.’ About noon we were marched to SS headquarters. We expected to be shot after being thrown into the Danube. Somehow—and I still do not know how—a message was gotten to Wallenberg. At 2:00 in the afternoon his car roared through the courtyard. Not one of the three hundred was lost. He simply put it straight to the SS commando: `You save these men, and I promise your safety after the Russians win the war.’

Eichmann fled Budapest on December 23, but the crisis for the Jews got worse as Russian guns pounded the city. Nyila goons pulled children out of an International Red Cross children’s home and a Jewish orphanage, and many were shot. The Institute of Forensic Medicine, Budapest, reported: In the most brutal manner, the Nyilas made short work of their victims. A few were simply shot, but the majority were mercilessly tortured.

On January 4, 1945, the Nyilas announced their intention to dismantle the international ghetto and force inhabitants into the Central Ghetto where living conditions were the worst—and where goons could easily find large numbers of Jews. Wallenberg persuaded Erno Vajna, brother of the interior minister and an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to suspend transfers into the Central Ghetto in exchange for some of the food which Wallenberg had stockpiled.

Wallenberg organized a new campaign to help save Jewish children. Working with the International Red Cross and the Swedish Red Cross, he provided food, shelter, and medical care for some 7,000 children.

Wallenberg’s Crowning Achievement

Finally, just days before the Russians entered Budapest, Wallenberg learned that about 500 SS and Arrow Cross soldiers were preparing to murder all 70,000 people in the Central Ghetto. Wallenberg contacted German General August Schmidthuber, an SS commander, and demanded that he stop the planned massacre. Wallenberg warned that he would make sure the general got hanged as a war criminal if the bloodbath occurred. Apparently frightened at that prospect, Schmidthuber ordered the conspirators to desist. He made it clear that if necessary he would uphold the order with his own forces. This was Wallenberg’s crowning achievement, a single negotiation which saved the lives of 70,000 people.

It is of the utmost importance, wrote the Hungarian author Jeno Levai, that the Nazis and Arrow Crossmen were not able to ravage unhindered—they were compelled to see that every step they took was being watched and followed by the young Swedish diplomat. From Wallenberg they could keep no secrets. The Arrow Crossmen could not trick him. They could not operate freely. . . . Wallenberg was the `world’s observing eye,’ the one who continually called the criminals to account.

Wallenberg looked forward to better times following the defeat of the Nazis. But the Russians came in the tradition of conquerors, not liberators. They considered the local population as an enemy. They seized thousands of Budapest civilians for forced labor, many never to return. Accustomed to the misery of Stalin’s socialist paradise, Russian soldiers went wild robbing people everywhere. They broke into apartments—bourgeois janitors’ apartments were especially vulnerable, since they were invariably on the first floor. Most Budapest women had horrifying stories to tell about brutal rape by Russian soldiers.

On January 13, 1945, Russian soldiers banged on the door of the cellar apartment where Wallenberg was sleeping. He showed his papers and asked to see the division’s commanding officer—he hoped to discuss plans for relieving the Jewish population. Four days later, January 17, 1945, he was transferred to the KGB secret police and whisked away to Moscow’s Lubyanka prison.

The Soviets were aware that Wallenberg was someone to reckon with, since thousands of documents circulated around Budapest with his signature. The Soviets considered him to be a likely adversary because of his well-known capitalist family and his education in the United States. The Soviets suspected that Wallenberg’s work must be a cover—they didn’t see why Christians would put their lives at risk to save Jews. He wasn’t a diplomat. Why else would somebody stay in such a hellish war zone except as a spy?

Recently released CIA documents suggest that Wallenberg did, in fact, help keep Washington informed about anti-Nazi resistance forces struggling to break the alliance between Budapest and Berlin. But there can be no doubt such work was a by-product of his mission to save human lives.

By April 1945, Wallenberg was transferred to Leftortovo Prison, a sure sign that he was in for a long haul. An Italian diplomat claimed that he was in an adjacent cell and communicated for three years by tapping on the wall.

American and Swedish officials made a number of inquiries about Wallenberg’s whereabouts, but Soviet officials denied they knew anything. The Swedish government, which was controlled by socialists who both feared and admired Stalin, didn’t push him hard. Swedish officials refused to try getting Wallenberg out by trading him for the next major Soviet spy they caught.

Despite official denials that Wallenberg was in the Soviet Union, dozens of prisoners emerged from Soviet prison camps and claimed to have seen or communicated with him. By 1957, the Soviets admitted they had taken Wallenberg, but claimed he had died of a heart attack in 1947, when he would have been just 35 years old.

Wallenberg’s mother, Maj von Dardel, and his half-sister Nina Lagergren and half-brother Guy von Dardel remained on the case. In early 1973, Maj von Dardel wrote U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, urging him to make inquiries. One of his assistants drafted a reply to her, but it was stamped Rejected by Kissinger, 10.15.73 and never sent. Apparently Kissinger wouldn’t take action for Wallenberg because Sweden had been critical of President Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia.

Fortunately, plenty of people remembered Wallenberg’s heroic deeds. Spurred by reports that he might still be alive, Wallenberg Committees were formed around the world during the late 1970s. The Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States organized an exhibition which traveled across the country. Schools, hospitals, parks, and streets were named after him. Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov demanded that the government turn over its Wallenberg files to independent investigators. President Ronald Reagan pushed the Soviets for answers and urged Congress to pass a bill naming Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen; he signed it into law on October 5, 1981. A bust of Wallenberg, by the Israeli sculptor Miri Margolin, was placed in the U.S. Capitol. In 1985, NBC broadcast a two-part, four-hour miniseries, Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story, starring Richard Chamberlain.

Despite the much-heralded political opening up of the Soviet Union, it had nothing new to report about Wallenberg. Guy von Dardel and Nina Lagergren got no new information when they visited the Soviet Union in October 1989, although they were given a few of Wallenberg’s personal effects—diplomatic passport, diary, address book, cigarette case, and some foreign currency. President Reagan raised the issue with Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited the United States in December 1989, but again nothing. Nor has the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union brought any solution to the mystery.

Optimism faded as the years passed without encouraging news. Observers like Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times believe the Soviets murdered him, and coming clean would be too embarrassing because they were all involved. But Guy von Dardel says Russian human rights organizations continue to pursue government archives for clues.

Raoul Wallenberg long ago joined the ranks of immortals. People will continue to be inspired by his heroism, which saved so many human beings from hideous evil. Wherever this beloved man is now, he will endure as the great Angel of Rescue who redeemed hope for humanity and liberty.

One of the Schutzpasse, designed by Raoul Wallenberg, which helped save thousands of Jews from the Nazi death camps.

Courtesy of Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States.

November 1944: here on the platform of the Jósefváros train station, Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg (back toward camera, marked by an X) negotiates with Nazi officers (left) to keep Jews from being herded into boxcars bound for the death camps.

Photograph by Thomas Veres

Raoul Wallenberg at his desk in Budapest.

Photograph by Thomas Veres


  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.