The “Swedish Angel of Rescue”
Have you taken a genetic ancestry (DNA) test yet? I haven’t, but my brother Peter did it a few years ago. Earlier this month, I asked him to send me the results of his test. Here’s what I found out.
Sweden & Denmark – 81%
Norway – 14%
England & Northwestern Europe – 3%
Germanic Europe – 2%
My siblings and I have always said we were “three quarters Swedish” because our mom was 100% (or so we thought) and our dad was 50% (ditto). Clearly, most of our blood is Scandinavian, at least Peter’s is. One of these days, I’ll find out for sure if mine is, too.
I’m happy to say I’ve been to Sweden twice. (I’m hoping to go once more with my sister Nancy when international travel is . . . well . . . easier.) In 1986, Joe and I took a train from Copenhagen, Denmark to Växjö (veck-qua or veck-shur) in southern Sweden so I could spend some time at the Svenska Emigrantinstitut (Swedish Emigrant Institute) looking for ancestral information. With the help of an American college student from Stillwater, Minnesota who was engaged in his own research (and was, thankfully, fluent in Swedish), I found some.
In 2001, Joe and I and my brother Chris spent three nights in Stockholm, then rented a car and drove through the southern provinces where our ancestors (the Johnsons/Johanssons, the Swansons/Svenssons, the Pohlsons/Pålssons) hailed from. Essentially, we looked for dead relatives in parish church cemeteries. As far as we know, we didn’t find any, but it was an enjoyable exercise nonetheless.
Now that you know a little about my connection with Sweden and Swedish people, you might not be surprised to learn this blog is really about Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who was credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. Recently, when I saw his name mentioned on a WWII timeline, I knew I’d want to learn more about him. His name was familiar to me, but I knew almost nothing about his life. Now I do.
Born on August 4, 1912 near Stockholm, Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg was the son of Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, a Swedish naval officer, and Maria Sofia Wising. His father died of cancer three months before his birth, and his mother remarried a few years later. Young Raoul (it’s a French version of Ralph or Rudolph) was soon joined by his half-brother Guy and his half-sister Nina.
After high school, he studied in Paris for a year before transferring to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he received a degree in architecture in 1935. During his breaks, he hitchhiked around America, later admitting those adventures gave him training in diplomacy and tact. The following year, he worked for a Swedish company in South Africa and a bank in Haifa in Palestine (now Israel). He eventually returned to Sweden to work at the Central European Trading Company, an import-export firm owned by Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew.
By 1938, Wallenberg’s business associate, Mr. Lauer, was in a difficult position. He was unable to easily travel to his native Hungary as the country moved closer and closer to German (Nazi) influence. Wallenberg became Lauer’s personal representative, making frequent trips to Hungary and learning the language. (He was already fluent in English, Russian, Spanish, German and French.) Within a year, he became joint owner and International Director of Lauer’s company.
By March 1944, as the war was turning against Germany and its allies, Adolf Hitler ordered his troops to occupy Hungary and take control of the government. In April and May 1944, with the help of Hungarian police, the Nazis began deporting Hungary’s Jews to extermination camps in Poland. In less than two months, 440,000 Jews, more than half the country’s Jewish population, were transported north through Czechoslovakia to Poland. The vast majority were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland.
So how did Raoul Wallenberg get involved in all this? In the summer of 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was searching for a solution to the genocide against the Jews in Hungary. He sent Iver Olsen, a U.S. Treasury official who was also connected to the OSS (wartime’s CIA), to Stockholm as a member of the newly created War Refugee Board. Olsen was introduced to Wallenberg by Kálmán Lauer, and the American (Olsen) ultimately chose the Swede (Wallenberg) to lead a daring rescue operation in Budapest.
At the time of Wallenberg’s July 9th arrival in Hungary’s capital, there were only 230,000 Jews left in Hungary. He knew he needed to act fast. Initially, efforts were made to create “protective passports” for as many Jews as possible. These bogus documents identified the bearers as Swedish subjects who were waiting to be repatriated to Sweden. They were generally accepted as authentic by the Germans and Hungarian officials. In order to keep as many Jews as possible in safe quarters, Wallenberg rented thirty-two buildings in Budapest that became “extraterritorial” (protected by diplomatic immunity), all bearing official-looking signs or plaques and large Swedish flags. Almost 13,000 Jews were eventually housed in these buildings.
At one point, Wallenberg single-handedly rescued dozens of Jews who were packed in a train of filthy, smelly cattle cars. He climbed onto the roof and handed out protective passes through open doors and windows, ignoring the German guards who were shouting at him. Shots were fired but he wasn’t hit. He ordered those holding passes to exit the train and move to a caravan of nearby cars that were all identified by Swedish colors. The stunned men, women, and children were all driven to safety.
As many as 350 courageous people from other nations were also involved in Wallenberg’s rescue efforts. Representatives from Switzerland, Portugal, The Netherlands, Italy, and the Vatican issued protective passports or forged visas, rented shelters and apartments, and issued safe conduct to Jews.
The actual number of lives saved by Raoul Wallenberg and his colleagues in 1944 is disputed. A 1947 Reader’s Digest article suggests there were 130,000 Jews still alive in Budapest in early 1945 when the Soviet Red Army took control of the city from the Nazis. Some historians believe that number to be high. Nevertheless, it was a dangerous effort that saw incredible success.
Raoul Wallenberg’s story didn’t end there. During the winter 1944-45 Soviet “Siege of Budapest," Wallenberg traveled 145 miles east of Budapest to Debrecen to speak with Soviet General Rodion Malinovsky. He supposedly pleaded for restoration of all the Jewish property that had been confiscated by the Hungarian government. Back at his office in Budapest the following morning, January 17, 1945, three officers of the Soviet secret police (SMERSH) arrived and detained him for possible involvement in espionage. Wallenberg shook hands with his staff, admitted “I don’t know whether I’m going as a prisoner or as a guest,” and they left. He was never seen again in the Western world.
What happened to Raoul Wallenberg? Many people have speculated over the past seventy-seven years. Here’s what I learned during my research.
—He was taken into custody for attempting to hide Jewish property from the Soviets; he was first imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) at Raab, Hungary, then transferred to a prison camp in Focsani in Bessarabia (today the Moldavian Republic).
—He was taken by train to Moscow and placed in Lubyanka prison where he died of a heart attack in July 1947.
—He and his driver were murdered on their way to Debrecen on January 16, 1945.
—He was executed (poisoned or shot) in 1947 while a prisoner at Lubyanka prison.
—Two people claim they talked to him (through a wall) or saw him alive in 1962.
—In the mid-1970s, a KGB general claimed that a “foreign prisoner” had been imprisoned in Lubyanka for “almost three decades”; people assume he was speaking about Wallenberg.
—Two independent witnesses claim to have evidence he was in Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals as late as November 1987.
In March 2016, the Swedish Tax Agency announced that a petition to have Raoul Wallenberg declared dead in absentia was submitted. The petition stated that he had seven months to respond to the Agency or he would be declared legally dead. Not surprisingly, he didn’t respond, and the declaration was made on October 14, 2016, 104 years after his birth. His official date of death is listed as July 31, 1952.
Some of you may remember Congressman Tom Lantos from California. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 until his death from cancer in 2008. What you might not know about Congressman Lantos is that he was a Holocaust survivor from Budapest, Hungary, whose life was saved by Raoul Wallenberg. He lived with an aunt in one of those thirty-two “safe houses” procured by Wallenberg in 1944. Lantos was sixteen years old when he joined Wallenberg’s network of rescuers. His fair hair and blue eyes (German-preferred “Aryan” features) gave him cover as he delivered food and medicine to Jews living in those buildings. When he was seventeen, he returned home to discover his mother and other relatives had been killed by the Germans.
In March 1981, Rep. Lantos sponsored a joint resolution (H.J.Res.220) proclaiming Raoul Wallenberg to be an honorary citizen of the United States, an honor bestowed on only one other person: Winston Churchill. It was passed by a vote of 396-2 and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on October 5, 1981 in the Rose Garden at the White House. Among the attendees were Congressman Lantos, Wallenberg’s sister Nina Lagergren, and brother Guy von Dardel.
I just finished reading (like, five minutes ago) this excellent (136-page) book by Louise Borden, an American author of children’s books. His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg: Courage, Rescue, and Mystery During World War II is loaded with photos and images of personal artifacts, and it’s also indexed. She covers Raoul Wallenberg’s extraordinary life in a way that will enlighten both children (age 12 and older) and adults. I highly recommend it. I was pleased to find this copy at our public library.
I don’t think there are any Wallenbergs in my family tree. Wouldn’t it be something if there were?
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.