Remembering Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944.

As the Secretary of the Embassy, he had been commissioned to map and evaluate the circumstances in Hungary and to organize Swedish rescue efforts and "humanitarian" actions. Although the majority of Hungarian Jews, unlike the Jews in other countries occupied by Germany could claim that their lives were safe until the spring of 1944, the heavily discriminatory series of so-called Jewish Acts implemented from 1938, and the deportations cannot remain unmentioned. This latter includes the expulsion of 20,000 Jews in the summer of 1941, leading to the horrible massacre by Germans in the Ukrainian settlement of Kameniec-Podolski.

Wallenberg arrived almost four months after the German occupation of Hungary. The reality was chilling. By this time, (based on racial legislation) the separation of the 825,000 member strong Jewish community, the concentration of the 437,402 Jews outside of the capital in ghettos, subsequently crammed into boxcars and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, had already taken place. The time had come to round up the Jews of Budapest and to move them forcibly into designated neighborhoods. Governor Miklós Horthy received a telegram from Gustav V, king of Sweden on 5 July. "Being informed about the extraordinarily strict and harsh measures that Your Government implements regarding the Jewish population of Hungary, I turn to You, Your Excellency, in the name of humanity, to ask Your intervention on behalf of those who can be still rescued among those unfortunate beings."

The 32-year-old Secretary of the Embassy had to engage in widespread organizational efforts to implement new forms of protection. He opted for introducing so-called Schutz-Passes, or protecting passes. At the beginning, he was authorized to issue Swedish protecting documents to fifteen hundred Hungarians who had family relations in Sweden or had permanent and direct interaction with Swedish businesses. (Later, he increased this number to 4500.) Soon, the diplomat recognized the hesitation of the Hungarian political elite. He sensed that many feared to be exposed to the German occupiers, and at the same time worried increasingly about the approaching end of the war, and the looming defeat. The bilingual Swedish protecting pass, with the photo of the holder was, similarly to those issued by some other Embassies, unknown and invalid by international law. In the summer of 1944 however, it had an impact and carried a message. The Hungarian Jews vegetating among life-threatening perils perceived these documents as a chance to break out, as the embodiment of organized resistance, as hope for survival.

The protecting passes, with the photo of the bearer, were issued by the Humanitarian Department (officially named as Abteilung "B"), established by Wallenberg. At mid-September, it had a staff of almost one hundred, whereupon the Information Department of the Royal Swedish Embassy in Budapest was also established. The representation of the Kingdom of Sweden issued identification cards to its employees, and they also received a separate personal card from the Ministry of Interior. They were exempted from wearing the compulsory yellow Star of David and from other detrimental obligations.

On 29 September, Wallenberg reported that the "whole staff with family members is approximately 300 people" and that "2700 protecting passes have been issued up to this moment." Hungarian Jews contributed greatly to his efforts, among them an inner circle of his supporters, employees of the Embassy, couriers, volunteer drivers. For instance, engineer Vilmos Langfelder became a close associate based on his German proficiency and driving experience.

Governor Horthy and a number of Hungarian politicians had been negotiating secretly about ending rapidly the country's engagement in the war. Very soon, the Germans discovered the plans and with an armed intervention helped the Arrow Cross under the leadership of Ferenc Szálasi into power. The coup d'état of 15 October raised a new wave of terror striking Jews who had survived the persecutions and were hoping for an end to the war. The Ambassador of Sweden, Carl Ivan Danielsson reported to Stockholm on 18 October that the new Hungarian government had introduced strict anti-Jewish regulations. The lives of the entire Jewish staff of the Embassy became jeopardized. The building was under siege by Jews asking for protection and the Embassy was not able to accommodate them.

The sharp political turn greatly aggravated the conditions of the rescue operations. The ministers of the Szálasi government were haranguing about the "complete de-Judification" of Hungary. The new German demands included "lending" 50,000 Jews as workforce to help war efforts. Wallenberg continued his hard work to extend Swedish protection. This was very much needed. At the beginning of November, the Arrow Cross dispatched columns of thousands of rounded up Jews on foot westwards, to the Hungarian-German border.

In the meantime, Wallenberg, aided mostly by the Embassy's Second Secretary, Per Anger, rented apartments, houses and established a Swedish hospital in the center of Budapest. The bearers of the Swedish Schutz-Passes took refuge in one of the 25 so-called Swedish protected houses. Similarly, other embassies in Budapest had been engaged in establishing "extraterritorial" houses marked by protecting signs for the Jews under their safeguard. At the same time, the Arrow Cross armed an increasing number of their members. These groups swarmed out from party headquarters for "examinations and confrontations", actually to loot and murder. The Jews, crowded into houses marked with the Star of David at their main entrances were at their mercy. The Arrow Cross gathered a large number of women, older children and elderly people at one of the brick factories in Óbuda. From this location, early in the winter, they were escorted to Hegyeshalom, the German border at that time.

Wallenberg accelerated issuing the Schutz-Passes and protested in diplomatic notes against the daily atrocities and kidnappings. The number of his Hungarian-Jewish collaborators was gradually increased and he extended the protection to their family members as well. The volunteers working with him, in spite of serious risks, used various pretexts to rescue day and night the bearers of Swedish (and other) protecting documents. For rescuing on the terrain, his brave and energetic men, ret. captain Gábor Alapy, Aurél Balázs jnr., Tivadar Jobbágy, Kázmér Kállay, György Libik, captain of the gendarmerie Dr. István Parádi, Iván Székely, György Szél, Hugó Wohl and others were dispatched. Photographer Tamás Veres escorted the diplomat from time to time. Today, his photos taken secretly are valuable documents.

For most of his trips, Wallenberg used a car driven by Vilmos Langfelder. The DKW or the Studebaker appearing on the road to Vienna, at the railway station, at the houses marked with the Star of David, on the Danube quays filled the captured Jews with hope. He succeeded in rescuing thousands, but he could not save them all. The Arrow Cross carried on with the massacres. Often they denied that the disappeared persons, searched for by the rescuers were their captives.

In January 1945, Wallenberg himself had to go into hiding from the Arrow Cross. He was spending his nights in the apartment of László Ocskay, ret. captain. He then reported of his own will to the first Soviet troops, unaware that an arrest warrant had been issued against him. On 17 January, he was taken to Moscow, where he presumably died in unclear circumstances in 1947.