Raoul Wallenberg: “The Swedish Schindler”

One can test the strength and values of a person by seeing how they react in critical times. During the Holocaust, there were people throughout Europe whom viewed the Nazis with disdain and assisted the Jewish people when the time came. Raoul Wallenberg is one of those people, though in his journey the victims did not come to him, he was determined to find them and bring them to safety. During World War II, Wallenberg saved as many as 100,000 Jews and is regarded in Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Memorial) as a “Righteous Among the Nations” for his courageous work as a determined humanitarian.

There were many non-Jews whom courageously saved Jews in tough times. While many of these figures, such as Oskar Schindler or the Ten Boom Family, saved the Jews when they needed it most, Wallenberg’s story starts after his graduation from the University of Michigan. He studied architecture but could not use his degree when he wanted to return to his native Sweden. This took Raoul to work in South Africa and later Haifa during the British Mandate of Palestine in 1936. Wallenberg then returned to become a businessman in Sweden, working for a Hungarian-Jew Kalman Lauer in Stockholm.  

In 1938, the Kingdom of Hungary took a turn for the worst, following in the footsteps of rising Nazi Germany. While the Nazis had been passing anti-Semitic laws since they had taken power in 1933, their influence had spread to other European countries in the region. These anti-Semitic laws were practically identical to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, prohibiting Jews from working in certain professions, reducing Jewish-Hungarian representation in government, and restricting Jews from working in much of public service. These race-based laws forced Wallenberg’s business associate from traveling to his native country, Hungary, for work. Wallenberg then became his eyes and ears on the ground. By 1941, Wallenberg had learned to speak Hungarian and traveled there frequently, though by 1944, the Jewish people would become his focus.

By the mid-1940s, the world had discovered the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In Hungary alone, over 430,000 Jews had been deported to concentration camps. In a letter written after learning these facts, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill had stated that “there is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”

This was the start of the War Refugee Board, an agency established by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944 to aid civilian victims of the Nazis as well as other victims of the Axis Powers’ fascist tirade. In June 1944, Raoul Wallenberg was recruited by the War Refugee Board, his task was to save as many of the 230,000 Jews remaining in Hungary. With coordination between the United States and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was assigned as a diplomat to Hungary in order to complete his mission. During his time in Budapest, Wallenberg supplied “protective passports,” giving Hungarian Jews protection from the Nazis as sovereign citizens of Sweden.

At times, Wallenberg’s job was tough, having to argue with officials about the legitimacy of his passports as well as stopping deportations of his citizens to the death camps. With resources from the War Refugee Board, Wallenberg was even able to rent thirty-two buildings in Budapest to house about 10,000 people, saving them from certain death. He claimed these buildings as Swedish diplomatic property; it was also recorded that Wallenberg had stopped a train full of Jews heading for the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, handing out dozens of passports and then demanding the Nazis release his citizens.

Raoul Wallenberg will not show up in any history book of the twentieth-century, though his name will always be preserved by Israel’s Holocaust Memorial “Yad Vashem” as a “Righteous of the Nations.” Wallenberg is also an Honorary Citizen of the United States, the second person ever to receive this standing, he is also an honorary citizen of Canada, Australia, Hungary and Israel. There are awards, streets, committees and many more honors named after Raoul Wallenberg, a humanitarian whose courage is not lost on people who know his story.

The Friends of Zion Museum features Wallenberg in the “Lights in the Darkness” exhibit, educating hundreds of thousands of visitors about this legendary figure who saved 100,000 people in their time of need during the Holocaust, choosing not to return to Stockholm until he had given all he could give to save the Jews in this critical time.