Raoul Wallenberg was one of the heroes of the Holocaust. He was a brave defender of the lives of thousands. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as the person who “single-handedly saved more people from extinction than any other individual.” Like many of the heroes who fought to save lives during this dismal period in world history, his good deeds did not go unpunished. Raoul Wallenberg disappeared near the end of World War II. The circumstances of his disappearance have yet to be satisfactorily established. This is a brief life story of a man who, whether he lived the remainder of his life in captivity or died soon after his disappearance, gave his life to defend the lives of the innocents who were threatened by one of the most monstrous rulers the world has ever known.
Raoul Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912. He was born into a wealthy and famous family of bankers and politicians. However, he was born fatherless. His father was a naval officer who died at the age of 23-three months before his son was born. Raoul’s mother made up for his loss by being a loving mother who doted on her son. He may have even inherited his caring nature from her. Raoul’s grandfather-Gustav Wallenberg also took the young boy under his wing. He oversaw Raoul’s education.
Raoul graduated in 1930. By the time of his graduation, he was fluent in Russian and a talented artist. He joined the Swedish army to serve the nine months of military service that was required of Swedish men. He finished his service by 1931, at which time he left for Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, he attended the University of Michigan. He studied architecture and was an excellent student. When Raoul Wallenberg graduated from the university in 1935, he received a medal for his academic achievements along with a degree in Science in Architecture.
Raoul Wallenberg returned home to Sweden for a time after his graduation. From there, he went to Cape Town, South Africa where he worked as a building supplies salesman. Six months later, he went to work for a bank in Haifa, Israel (which was then Palestine). He returned to Sweden once again in 1936. He met a businessman named Koloman Lauers around this time. He soon became a partner in Koloman Lauers’ Mid-European Trading Company.
Raoul Wallenberg’s new business partner was a Hungarian Jew. Through his work with Kolomar, Raoul found out the sickening truth about Adolf Hitler. It was not long before the rest of the world knew too. It is presumably around this time that Raoul began to feel empathy for the Jews of the world.
In March of 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary. Roughly 700,000 Hungarians Jews became in danger of being taken, killed or both. The Nazis began taking Jews out of Hungary and bringing them to concentration camps almost immediately. The U.S.A.’s newly formed War Refugee Board met with officials in Sweden to discuss what might be done to save the Jews in Hungary. Raoul Wallenberg’s business partner was among these men. When it was suggested that someone be sent into Hungary, Lauer mentioned Raoul. After some thought, it was decided that the intelligent, kind, resourceful young man who was fluent in Russian would be sent.
Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Hungary in July of 1944. By that time, more than half of the Hungarian Jews had been ripped from their homeland by the Nazis. Raoul immediately set to work building safe houses, acquiring barely official passes and pressuring officials. His efforts gave a large number of Jewish people save places to live, passes to protect them from the Nazis and he even managed to convince officials to allow him to exempt his Jewish staff members from wearing the Star of David.
All of the above was only the tip of the iceberg for Raoul Wallenberg. He chased down trains full of Jews to hand them passes in their cars. He provided essentials, such as medicine, clothing and food to the beleaguered Jews of Hungary. He was extraordinarily diligent in his efforts. He did not work alone, but it was his willingness to badger the Nazis that made the operation a success. In January of 1945, Raoul wrote a letter to a general who was meant to carry out the execution of tens of thousands of Jews. Raoul told the man, in no uncertain terms, that if he were to carry out his orders, he would be tried when the war was over and hanged as a war criminal. The man heeded Raoul’s warning and thousands who were meant to die, lived because of him.
The Soviet army took Hungary from the Nazis in late 1944, early 1945. Raoul Wallenberg willingly went with a group of Soviet troops on January 17, 1945. Raoul said goodbye to his friends, who he told that he was not sure if he was a prisoner or a guest of the Russians. Either way, he was thought to be on his way to the Soviet headquarters in Budapest. His friends and family never saw him again. Click here to learn more about the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg.
Out of the roughly 700,000 Jews that lived in Hungary before the war, only 120,000 of them were accounted for when World War II ended. The large portion of them that were saved by Raoul Wallenberg never got the chance to thank their savior.
Metzler, David, Raoul Wallenberg, retrieved 5/28/10, jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/wallenberg.html
Bernheim, Rachel Oesteicher, A Hero For Our Time, retrieved 5/28/10, raoulwallenberg.org/raoulwallenberg_aheroforourtime.htm