11 January 2023
Raoul Wallenberg and
his rescue of Jews and
refugees in Hungary
during the Holocaust
Amber Jackson from the diocese communications team in the Diocese of Europe and Patrick Comerford from USPG are visiting Anglican chaplaincies in Hungary and Finland to see how they are supporting Ukrainian refugees with funding from the joint Ukraine appeal.
Before leaving Hungary, Patrick Comerford was reminded of one of the great heroes involved in rescuingJews and war-time refugees in Budapest during the Holocaust
The Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, also known as the Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in Europe seating 3,000 people
The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park in the rear courtyard holds the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs. At least 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
The park is also a lasting memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the war-time Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
Because of his successful efforts to rescue Hungarian Jews, Wallenberg has been the subject of numerous humanitarian honours. He was declared an honorary citizen of the US in 1981, he is also an honorary citizen of Australia, Britain, Canada, Hungary and Israel, and Israel has designated him one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
The memorial, made by the Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga, resembles a weeping willow in the shape of an inverted menorah, with leaves inscribed with the names of victims.
Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg was a Swedish architect, businessman and diplomat. While he was Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, he issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings he declared Swedish territory. He saved thousands of Jews in German-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust from German Nazis and Hungarian fascists.
During the Red Army siege of Budapest, Wallenberg was detained on 17 January 1945 on suspicion of espionage and disappeared. In 1957, 12 years after his disappearance, the Soviet authorities said he had died of a myocardial infarction on 17 July 1947 in prison in Lubyanka, the headquarters of the NKVD secret police in Moscow.
Beginning in 1938, the Kingdom of Hungary, during the regency of Miklós Horthy, passed a series of anti-Jewish laws modelled on the Nuremberg Race Laws in Nazi Germany. The Hungarian laws focused on excluding Jews from certain professions, removing Jews from government and public service jobs, and prohibiting intermarriage. Hungary joined the Axis powers in November 1940, and took part in the Nazi-led invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Raoul Wallenberg’s business associate, Kálmán Lauer, found it increasingly difficult to travel to his native Hungary. Wallenberg became his personal representative, travelling to Hungary on his behalf and taking care of Lauer’s extended family in Budapest.
His visits to Budapest became more frequent from 1941. He learned to speak Hungarian, and he became a joint owner of Lauer’s business. He made several business trips to Germany and occupied France, closely observing Nazi bureaucracy. He was also inspired by ‘Pimpernel’ Smith, a 1941 British film he saw at a private screening in the British Embassy in Stockholm. In the film, the character of Professor Horatio Smith (Leslie Howard), a Cambridge archaeologist, saved 28 Jews from the Nazis.
Life in Hungary deteriorated further as the tide of the war began to turn against Germany and its allies. At the catastrophic Axis defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, Hungarian troops fighting alongside Germans suffered an 84% casualty rate.
When Hitler learned of Horthy’s secret talks with Britain and the US, he ordered the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944 and a puppet government was installed in Budapest. As a part of Eichmann’s plan, 70,000 Jews were relocated to the Ghetto of Pest in 1944.
The mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews to extermination camps began in April and May 1944. Under Adolf Eichmann, people were deported at a rate of 12,000 a day. In all, 435,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, mainly to Auschwitz.
Winston Churchill said at the time: ‘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 …’
President Franklin D Roosevelt sent Iver C Olsen to Stockholm to find a plan to rescue the Jews of Hungary. He met Wallenberg in June 1944, and the Swedish Foreign Ministry agreed to assign Wallenberg to the legation in Budapest.
By the time Wallenberg arrived at the Swedish legation in Budapest on 9 July 1944, the Nazi deportation of the Jews of Hungary had been under way for several months. Between May and early July 1944, Eichmann had deported more than 400,000 Jews by train. All but 15,000 were sent directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the time Wallenberg arrived, only 230,000 Jews remained in Hungary.
Wallenberg, working with a fellow Swedish diplomat Per Anger and Miklos ‘Moshe’ Krausz, who ran the Jewish Agency’s Budapest office, issued ‘protective passports’ identifying the holders as Swedish subjects awaiting repatriation. Although the documents were not legal, they looked official and German and Hungarian officials were sometimes bribed to accept them.
People with the protective passes were treated as Swedish citizens and were exempted from wearing yellow stars. When the Germans declared the travel passes invalid, Baroness Elisabeth Kemény persuaded her husband, Baron Gábor Kemény, the Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, to have 9,000 passes honoured.
With funds raised by American Jews, Wallenberg rented 32 buildings in Budapest and declared them to be extraterritorial, protected by diplomatic immunity. He put up signs such as ‘The Swedish Library’ and ‘The Swedish Research Institute’ and hung over-sized Swedish flags on the buildings. The buildings eventually housed almost 10,000 people.
On one occasion, Wallenberg intercepted a trainload of Jews about to leave for Auschwitz, climbed on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors. He ignored German orders to get down, and even when Hungarian fascists shot over his head, he continued handing out passports. Dozens of people with passports left the train and walked to a caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours.
At the height of Wallenberg’s rescue programme, more than 350 people were involved in the rescue of Jews of Budapest.
Tibor Baranski, a 22-year-old theology student, was recruited by the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Angelo Rotta. Posing as a Vatican representative, Baranski collaborated with Wallenberg and other diplomats, and saved about 3,000 Jews.
A Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz issued protective passports from the Swiss embassy in 1944. Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman, posed as a Spanish diplomat and issued forged visas. Two Portuguese diplomats, Sampaio Garrido and Carlos de Liz-Texeira Branquinho, rented houses and apartments to shelter and protect refugees and issued safe conducts to about 1,000 Hungarian Jews.
Berber Smit (Barbara Hogg) also helped Wallenberg, as did her son. Giorgio Perlasca posed as the Spanish consul-general to Hungary in the winter of 1944, and saved 5,218 Jews.
Over 2,000 Jews died in the ghetto from hunger and cold in the winter of 1944-1945 and were buried in the courtyard of the Dohány Street Synagogue, although it is against Jewish custom to have a cemetery next to a synagogue.
Wallenberg began sleeping in a different house each night, to guard against being captured or killed by Arrow Cross members or by Eichmann’s men. Yet he persuaded the Germans to prevent a Fascist plan to blow up the Budapest ghetto and murder about 70,000 Jews. He also persuaded the Germans to cancel a final effort to organise a death march of the remaining Jews in Budapest by threatening to have them prosecuted for war crimes after the war.
The people saved by Wallenberg included the biochemist Lars Ernster and Tom Lantos, later a member of the US House of Representatives.
On 29 October 1944, elements of the 2nd Ukrainian Front under Marshal Rodion Malinovsky launched an offensive against Budapest. By late December, the city had been encircled by Soviet forces. The SS commander of Budapest, Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbuch, refused all offers to surrender, and the siege of Budapest was protracted and bloody.
At the height of the siege, Wallenberg was called to Malinovsky’s headquarters in Debrecen on 17 January 1945. His last recorded words were, ‘I'm going to Malinovsky’s ... whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.’ Soviet troops liberated the ghetto on the following day, 18 January 1945.
The motives behind Wallenberg’s arrest and imprisonment by Soviet authorities, and his disappearance remain the subjects of continued speculation, and the cause and date of his death are still disputed. Some people claim they saw men who looked like him in Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals as late as the 1980s.
Some sources say Wallenberg was responsible for rescuing 100,000 Jews who survived the Holocaust in Hungary. Other sources say the actual number of people he rescued was about 4,500. Yet, he remains one of the heroic and inspiring figures in terms of humanitarian rescue work.
Imre Varga’s sculpture in the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park behind the Dohány Street Synagogue shows a weeping willow with the names and tattoo numbers of the dead.