Raoul Wallenberg: the man who saved the Jews in the midst of death and despair

The memorial to Raoul Wallenberg. Photography: John McCutcheon
The memorial in Raoul Wallenberg Park on Szent Istan Street in Budapest . Photography: John McCutcheon

During World War II Raoul Wallenberg gave life and hope to those who faced despair, torture, and death.

By June of 1944, Hitler’s Final Solution had decimated most of the Jews of Europe.  A pocket of 230,000 Jews remained in the city of Budapest, Hungary.  Jews living outside the city and numbering 437,000 had already been deported.  Most of them were either executed or starved and worked to death.

When it became clear to General Horty, commanding governor of Hungary, that Germany would lose the war, he attempted to make peace with the Allies and slowed Jewish executions.  But Adolph Eichmann was sent to step up the Final Solution.   An article reported that from March to June 1944, in 46 days Eichmann deported 427,000 Jews, hardly a fourth of them survived.

No way can enough honor be given to all those who saved Jews.  But one man deserves that his story be retold and retold to the end of time.  Raoul Wallenberg from an old, distinguished, and wealthy Swedish family saved 100,000 Jews and helped to save many Hungarian partisans in 6 months.

While the Russian army fought on the outskirts of Budapest, Wallenberg, 31 years of age, arrived in Hungary in July 1944.  With ample funds from the U.S. War Refugee Board he was given the mission to save as many as he could.  His efforts were nothing short of miraculous.  The courage he displayed shocked many Arrow Cross and Nazi authorities and soldiers.  Even though the Gestapo quickly put a price on his head and several assassination plans were attempted, he never relented from his goal.  Sleeping from one to four hours and in a different place every night, he managed to excape Nazi arrest.

The Dohany Street Synagogue gardens   and synagogue in Budapest were once holding grounds for tens of thousands of Jews. Now along with the gardens are the refurbished synagogue and a museum dedicated to the history of Judaism.
The Dohany Street Synagogue gardens and synagogue in Budapest were once holding grounds for tens of thousands of Jews. Now along with the gardens are the refurbished synagogue and a museum dedicated to the history of Judaism.

He designed a “Schutzpass” in bright yellow and blue colors with the triple crown emblem of Sweden. These passports enabled Jews a means to escape deportation. Billboards around Budapest displaying the Schutzpass familiarized and impressed illiterate officials.  Bribery also enhanced much of Wallenberg’s efforts.  Any Jew that he and his 400 volunteer Jewish “employees” could reach were given a Schutzpass.  Often racing to train stations, he climbed atop cars and pushed these passports through cracks, then demanded that those with a Schutzpass be allowed off the trains.  He negotiated with Hungarian authorities that his Schutzpass holders not be required to wear the Jewish yellow star.  Thus these Jews were afforded the opportunity to move around Budapest to carry out his missions.

He purchased 30-32 buildings to house as many as 15,000 Jews.  Beside the Jewish flag he flew the Swedish flag establishing diplomatic immunity status.  He created hospitals, soup kitchens, schools, and orphanages for 8,000 Jewish children.  If forewarned of an impending raid, he or his emlployees often dressed “Aryan looking” young Jewish men in Nazi uniforms and posted them outside safe houses.  But not every safe house was safe.  On Christmas day 1944, a Hungarian gang of Arrow Cross thugs raided an orphanage, shot or with their rifle butts beat to death all 78 children.

Nazi and Arrow Cross soldiers often marched Jews to the banks of the Danube.  Tying three together they saved bullets by shooting the middle person, sending the bundle to drown in the Danube.  “Who can swim?”  Wallenberg asked on one occasion.  He and his employees raced to the Danube, jumped into the freezing water, and saved 50-60 people.

While Russian troops fought closer and closer to the city limits, Nazis, now fighting on all fronts, were in short supply of trains to deport Jews.  In one week Eichmann and his killers rounded up Jewish women often wearing high heels, children, and the elderly off the streets and forced them at gun point to march 125 miles through snow and ice to the Austrian/ Hungarian border. Conditions so deadly that even the soldiers complained bitterly.  Jews literally dropped dead in their tracks for lack of food, water, and shelter.  Wallenberg, along with Per Anger who was also part of the Swedish legation, and their driver moved along the line giving water, food, clothing, and Schutzpasses to as many as they could reach.  About 1500 lives were saved through these efforts.

Eichmann planned for the Final Solution of 70,000 Jewish prisoners in Budapest’s general ghetto.  These people existed under the most depraved and horrible conditions imaginable. Often relentlessly tortured and executed as examples.

While Russian shells fell on Budapest, the ghetto was to be surrounded and every Jew massacred.  The executions were to be lead by priest Vilmos Lucska.   The intent was that Nazi Arrow Crossmen would carry out the massacre.  Two hundred extra soldiers were posted to surround the ghetto walls thwarting escapes.  Eichmann decreed all ghetto Jews dead before Russian soldiers could free them.

Wallenberg was at his finest when he persuaded Pal Szalay, a high ranking Arrow-Crossman, to stop the massacre.  Wallenberg threatened to expose every Nazi official of war crimes against humanity at the end of the war if the executions were not stopped. The result was that Szalay was the only Nazi official not hanged and permitted to go free without any charges as a result of his interceding.

Tip: Wallenberg, “One of the Just,” Part II next week.


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