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Culture

Raoul Wallenberg: the Swedish Oskar Schindler

Raoul Wallenberg was born 100 years ago on Saturday. In 1944, he saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis, only to be arrested and shot by the Soviets. Details of his death are still scarce.

Raoul Wallenberg, circa 1937: Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Raoul Wallenberg

Budapest 1944: the Allies had landed in Normandy and the Red Army was pushing back the Germans in the east, but Hungary was still occupied by the Wehrmacht. The SS under Adolf Eichmann was brutally forcing the deportation of Hungarian Jews. Some 437,000 men, women, and children had already been killed when Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in the Hungarian capital.

Determined to help

Raoul Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912. The son of a renowned Swedish family of entrepreneurs and diplomats, he was supposed to become a banker, but found he had neither the inclination nor the talent for the work. Instead he went to the US to study architecture, dropped out, and returned to Sweden during World War II to set up a business importing food - owing his success partly to his experienced Hungarian business partner Kalman Lauer.

Lauer was looking for a way to help his Jewish relatives back in Hungary when Wallenberg got a secret mission from the Swedish government. With $150,000 from the US, the 32-year old was charged with saving the remaining Jews in Hungary. "Raoul Wallenberg was not a professional politician," explains Hamburg Journalist and historian Ulrich Völklein, but rather "a young man, determined to work for the humanitarian cause."

Wallenberg memorial in Hungary

Wallenberg has been honored in Budapest and Israel

Swedish Schindler

As an attaché to the Swedish embassy, Wallenberg enjoyed diplomatic immunity, and he knew how to use it. He bought up buildings in which those he saved could find refuge under the Swedish flag. He bribed officials, offered huge financial deals and threatened political consequences should they fail to help him. Then, the young Swede came up with the idea of issuing "protective passports" that identified the bearers as Swedish citizens and therefore citizens of a neutral state. He managed to save several thousand Jews from the SS and Gestapo. "Wallenberg worked on all levels," says Völklein. "He was in contact with SS commanders, he negotiated with Eichmann. He spoke with German political representatives in Budapest and put pressure on them."

Wallenberg obtained the schedule of the train transports to the concentration camps, and personally stopped trains to Auschwitz. He also saved Jews from deportation marches, stopped executions by Hungary's Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party. Wallenberg's courage is said to have even impressed some of the SS men.

The diplomatic passport of Raoul Wallenberg

Wallenberg used his diplomatic pass to remain neutral



Death in Moscow

When Soviet troops finally took Budapest, they found that almost 100,000 Jews had survived the Holocaust. On January 16, 1945, the Swedish government was told that Wallenberg had been placed under Soviet protection. "I don't know whether I'm their prisoner or their guest," Wallenberg is said to have joked the last time he was seen in the west. He disappeared without trace. The Kremlin first claimed that Wallenberg been killed by Hungarian fascists - but in fact he had been arrested by the Soviets and brought to Moscow.

The charges: Wallenberg had allegedly been a spy for the US and collaborated with leading Nazi officials. "We know this from former NKVD [People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs - Soviet secret police] officers who tried to woo Wallenberg for cooperation," explains Völklein, who has researched Russian archives and spoken to contemporary witnesses about Wallenberg.

An undated photo of Raoul Wallenberg

An undated photo of Raoul Wallenberg

Russia confirms: Wallenberg was shot

But other historians claim it was not Wallenberg's alleged spying that led to his arrest, but his family ties to a major Swedish company that supplied both sides during the war. They speculate that the Soviets used Wallenberg as collateral during negotiations with Sweden and the Wallenberg company. These historians also accuse Sweden of being too hesitant in looking for Wallenberg after he disappeared, perhaps to appease the Soviet Union out of concern for their neutral status during the Cold War.

On February 7, 1957, the Soviet Union officially told Sweden that Wallenberg had died of heart failure in 1947 - in the hospital at the Lubyanka, the NKVD's notorious prison. But no proof was offered. In 1989, a few personal objects were handed over to Wallenberg's relatives, including his passport, a calendar and a cigarette case. Then in 2001, Russia confirmed what long had been suspected - that Wallenberg had been shot.

Raoul Wallenberg's briefcase in bronze, placed on the foundation to the summerhouse where he was born in 1912

Wallenberg has also been commemorated in Sweden

But still the Russian authorities offer no further details. Only documents thought to be deep in the Russian archives can reveal exactly how long Wallenberg lived and how and by whose hand he died.

Wallenberg's legacy

Numerous books, films, documentaries, pop songs and even an opera have been made about Wallenberg. He was awarded the highest national award by Swedish King Gustav Adolf, while the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem honored him as one of the "Righteous among the Nations." He was awarded the European Human Rights Prize in 1995, and there's a plaque commemorating Wallenberg on the grand synagogue in the Hungarian capital. Some have called him the Angel of Budapest.

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