70th Anniversary of the Death of Raoul Wallenberg

Mateusz Szczepaniak / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, 14th July 2017
"We have so much to do – we're working day and night", wrote Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1947), in a letter to his mother at the end of August 1944. "It looks like our first humanitarian efforts have succeeded. However, we still encounter many difficulties". As a diplomat, as a Special Envoy at the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, together with the Red Cross, he managed to save many thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. Today, seventy years have passed since his tragic death.

Up to 19th March 1944, Hungarian Jews comprised the largest Jewish community in Europe which had not been confronted with mass extermination. That situation changed with the entry of the Germans into their country. At that time, the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, appointed a new government under the leadership of Doeme Sztojay, who began cooperating with Adolf Eichmann, head of the Jewish Department of the Reich Security Office, on the extermination of the Jews.

In preparation for the mass deportations, German units, with the complicity of the Hungarian state, began imprisoning Jews in transit camps and ghettoes. The first transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau left on 28th and 29th April. But the deportation operations really got underway on 15th May. In the following months, close to half a million Hungarian Jews lost their lives.

In an attempt to stop the deportations, the United States government sent a representative to Sweden which, during the War, was a neutral country. That representative looked for someone who, exploiting their diplomatic immunity, could undertake a mission to save Hungarian Jews. Raoul Wallenberg, an architect and entrepreneur, agreed to perform that task.

Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on 9th July 1944, as Secretary of the Swedish Embassy. Three days earlier, Miklós Horthy had forced further deportations to stop. At the same time, the Germans had suspended the death sentence that hung over the Hungarian Jewish community which, at that time, numbered around 250,000 people. During the course of the next six months, Wallenberg worked intensively and courageously in order to save them.

Officially, he was one of many diplomats in the Embassy in Budapest. His activities were concentrated on the issuing of Swedish passports, visas, citizenship certificates and other documents which would ensure protection against deportation. He recommended to the Hungarian government that these papers be treated as family documents, which meant that they could save the lives of several individuals. In addition, he employed a few hundred Jews in the Embassy, provided medical care and distributed food. He also established an orphanage and an aged care home. 

Other Swedish Embassy staff joined him in providing help to the Jews. From the beginning, Wallenberg cooperated effectively with the International Red Cross, with the diplomatic delegations of other neutral countries and with supportive Hungarians. Also active in Budapest was the Swiss Vice-Consul Carl Lutz, the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Angelo Rotta and Henryk Sławik, Chairman of the Committee for the Care of Polish Refugees. Wallenberg's activities were also supported financially by the United States government.


Read the story of Henryk Sławik


On 15th October 1944,  the Arrow Cross Party, collaborators with the Germans under the leadership of Ferenc Szálasi, seized power in Hungary. Again, the situation for the Jewish population changed. At the end of October and in the first half of November, around 40,000 Jews were sent west for forced labour. They would ultimately die from emaciation and brutal treatment.

Wallenberg, in a letter to his mother, wrote, "Many Jews have perished. There are none left outside of the big cities. Budapest, well-known for its beauty, has changed completely".

On 13th February 1945, the Red Army occupied the Hungarian capital city. One month earlier, Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the NKVD and was transported to the USSR. He died, in unexplained circumstances, probably on 16th July 1947. In recognition of his activities, on 26th November 1963, he was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. It is estimated that, during the War, he could have saved close to 100,000 people.

Bibliography

Hilberg Raul, Sprawcy, ofiary, świadkowie, Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, Warsaw 2007.

Lendvei Paul, Nad strasznym czarnym Dunajem, "Polityka” 2016, No. 50 (3089) (accessed online 14.07.2017): http://www.polityka.pl/tygodnikpolityka/historia/1685372,1,zaglada-wegierskich-zydow.read.

Raoul Wallenberg and the rescue of Jews in Budapest (in) Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (accessed online 14.07.2017): https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005211. 

Sielski Andrzej, Sprawa Wallenberga, Kraków 2002.