In June of 1933, Raoul Wallenberg stood alone in a ditch next to a wrecked car, his two suitcases at his feet. The 21-year-old had just come from working at the Swedish Exposition at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and he was trying to get home to Ann Arbor, where he had just finished his second year studying architecture at the University of Michigan.

Unharmed from the accident, his car mates had gone to find a tow-truck, while Wallenberg—also unscathed—had stayed behind in hopes of catching another ride before the sun went down.

Four men in their mid-20s stopped in a car with Iowa plates. Suspicious that they didn’t appear to have any luggage, Wallenberg warily hopped in.

“How much would it be worth to you if we took you all the way to Ann Arbor?” One of the men asked Wallenberg as they sped into the night.

“Nothing,” Wallenberg replied coolly, “because in that case I would have taken the bus.”

Wallenberg, the scion of a powerful Swedish banking family, had been in America since 1931 and was fluent in English. The men had no idea they’d just picked up a Swedish Rockefeller.

Wallenberg talked with the men calmly as they drove. But then they turned so abruptly off the main road, down a dark country lane, that the car almost rolled over. The car whipped through the dark forest, until finally it rumbled to a halt.

The men forced Wallenberg out at the point of a revolver. They took all the money from his pockets, then had him open his suitcases. They pulled out the envelope containing not only all of his remaining cash, but the key to his safety deposit box.

All the money his rich family had sent along with him for college was in that bank box.
Still at gunpoint, Wallenberg successfully persuaded them to return his key, that its only value was sentimental.

Then, stripped of all his cash, he convinced his nervous assailants to drive him back to the highway.

In a letter to his mother written after the event, he said: “They let me sit next to the driver.” By this time, they were the ones who were frightened, maybe because he was so calm. “Maybe they thought I was planning to lure them into a trap.”

Suddenly, overcome by their fear, the men tossed Wallenberg from the car into a ditch, sending his luggage with him.

Raoul Wallenberg had come to America, and to the University of Michigan, for just such an adventure. Wallenberg realized that the family money he had placed in that bank deposit box had not brought him to America to learn how “to build a skyscraper,” but rather that the money was there to help him “catch some of the American spirit,” and to catch “the desire to build” great and monumental things.

Neutrality, the Waning War, and Hungary’s Jews.

By 1943, World War II’s military dynamics had shifted. For the first time, Germany was on the defensive. The battle of Stalingrad and the second battle of El Alamein in Egypt had cut a major swath of victory for the Allies. Germany was scrambling to regroup, yet, even as it fought to regain control, the Nazis were rooting out Jews and sending them, en masse, to concentration camps. Germany eyed Hungary’s 800,000 Jews, the largest remaining population in Europe, with deadly intent.

As Germany’s military prowess declined, Hungary’s long-ruling leader, Admiral Miklos Horthy, began to doubt his partnership with Hitler. In 1943, Horthy reached out to the Allies, and Hitler, frustrated, demanded that all of the Hungarian Jews be deported into Germany’s death camp system at once. Horthy refused.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles to the north, Sweden began to use its position of ostensible neutrality in the war to help Jews across Europe. From Denmark to Norway to Finland, Sweden engaged in a large-scale humanitarian effort to save Jews from death camps. The unfolding situation in Hungary became a top priority.

Switzerland, also largely neutral during the war, sent diplomats to work with Sweden to identify Jews with a connection to either country. It was the first line of defense: Once Jews in Hungary could be identified, international diplomats could issue protective paperwork. Passports and letters promising citizenship were disseminated, and, as demand grew, diplomats were even hurriedly typing out notes asserting Swedish protection and signing them on the fly. The number of “protected” international Jews trapped in Budapest swelled.

In early 1944, Hitler’s dominance was waning, but still his army fought on, and still crimes against the Jews continued. At this late stage, the United States joined the neutral countries’ humanitarian efforts by creating the War Refugees Board (WRB), which was tasked with saving the remaining Jews of Europe. One of the first countries the WRB visited to enlist partnership and help was Sweden.

Sweden and the WRB searched frantically for a man to formally lead the diplomatic effort to save Jews in Hungary. While they hunted, the Holocaust returned to the Hungarian countryside. In the spring of 1944, Nazis invaded Hungary and forced Horthy’s government to deport the Jews. One hundred forty-five Nazi trains took 440,000 Jews out of Hungary, the majority straight to Auschwitz. On arrival, 320,000 were killed. Tens of thousands more died in the countryside during the deportations.

That same spring, Wallenberg was a partner in an import/export firm with a Hungarian Jew named Kalman Lauer. Through Lauer, Wallenberg’s name was brought into negotiations to head up Sweden’s efforts to protect Jews in Hungary.

By mid-June, Wallenberg was dining with Iver Olsen, the American head of the WRB’s Swedish operations, who was also the United States’ representative in Sweden for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the CIA. This seemingly insignificant detail in their first meeting would have enormous repercussions for Wallenberg later. But there, at that first early-summer encounter, all was right: Olsen immediately recognized that the young, intelligent, ambitious, American-educated businessman with contacts in the Hungarian Jewish community would be a perfect person to send into the chaos of Hungary.

Given the historic scale of what was happening, Wallenberg, who had for years been shunted to the edges of his own family’s empire, was eager to show his quality. Equally important to him was wanting to alleviate the terror that his partner, Lauer, lived with day by day as he struggled to send and receive information about friends and family in Hungary.

Meanwhile, the removal of Hungarian Jews proceeded swiftly. The Germans were accelerating to 70,000 deportations per week. In June 1944, President Roosevelt publicly admonished the Hungarian regime, and for the first time in the war, Pope Pius XII spoke out against the Holocaust when he telegrammed Horthy asking that the suffering be stopped. Finally, King Gustav of Sweden sent a personal telegram to Horthy, and on July 6, the deportations ceased.

With the countryside mostly emptied, the largest Jewish population still left in Europe was now in Budapest. Only about 200,000 Hungarian Jews remained in the city, the rest scattered across the countryside.

When Wallenberg arrived on July 9, 1944, more than half of the Jews of Hungary were already dead.

Hungary’s Tireless Paper Pusher

Wallenberg landed amid relative calm. Though by usual standards Budapest wouldn’t be characterized as “safe” for Jews at that time, the deportations were largely on hold. The primary threat to Jews in Budapest was detention by the Germans, who looked for any excuse to send Jews to work building border defenses in preparation for the imminent assault by the Red Army

These work camps were as deadly as any in the Reich. The only protection Jews had was still the quasi-legal protection conferred by diplomatic paperwork. In this context, Wallenberg’s cool confidence, which he held staring down the prairie bandits 11 years before, allowed him to set about calmly and diligently expanding and perfecting the international operations already under way.

To that end, Wallenberg rented a large office flat and brought in more than 400 volunteer staff members from the surrounding Jewish community. Their job was to process the hundreds of protection requests sent primarily from Sweden, but progressively from around the world. From these lists they worked to identify if people were still alive, still in Budapest, and by what authority they might claim a legal grounding for diplomatic protection. This work freed the career diplomats to spend more energy negotiating with the Hungarian regime.

Wallenberg himself worked to standardize the existing jumble of protection paperwork. One key document, called the “Schutz-Pass,” which had been used for several years by the Swiss, was radically revamped. Though the document had no real basis in international law, Wallenberg understood the key to protective paperwork was the confidence it conferred to the person bearing it. Drawing on his training as an architect, he personally redesigned the Schutz-Pass to look more authoritative. He even had a unique number printed in the upper right hand corner. The number had no meaning, but it again conferred authority. He had thousands printed, and insisted on the quality of the document.

Wallenberg also began an urban planning project. He slowly assembled a collection of buildings, 32 by the end, and conferred on these buildings the extraterritorial status of embassies. With Schutz-Passes as his shield, and the apartment complexes as a home base, he slowly began expanding the number of Jews under Swedish protection.

When he arrived in Hungary, fewer than 1,000 Jews were under the protection of the Swedish delegation. By September 1944, the Swedes were protecting 6,000 Jews in the system Wallenberg built and managed. The Swiss, likewise, had protected more than 7,000 Jews by using strategies developed alongside Wallenberg and the Swedish delegation. These and other safeguarded Jews were brought together into what became known as the “international ghetto.”

In a temple courtyard in Budapest, Hungary, officials view Jewish victims of the deadly Arrow Cross circa January 1945.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Wallenberg worked tirelessly alongside the other international diplomats. They constantly negotiated to have people released from custody, released from work camps, and exempt from wearing the yellow star identifying them as Jews. Wallenberg also worked to keep simple things like food rations flowing into the safe houses he controlled, and to keep plumbing functioning so that waste could flow out. Disease was as efficient a killer as a Nazi bullet.

But then, on October 15, 1944, the Germans grew tired of Hungarian resistance, and Horthy himself was deposed and replaced by Hungarian fascists. The deportations were set to resume. Wallenberg rode up and down the streets of Budapest on a borrowed women’s bicycle, warding off looters and thugs and delivering sacks of food to hiding Jews. He sought and rescued as many of his staff and their family as he could, and eventually housed more than 700 people in the offices he had rented at the beginning of the summer.

Though Germany had, for all intents and purposes, already lost the war, and though the newly established Hungarian fascists were facing imminent destruction by the Red Army fast encircling the city, the fascists still worked with the Germans to kill as many Jews as they could. They had removed Jews from the international ghetto and the safe houses and consolidated them in one central ghetto with more than 70,000 residents, leaving the international diplomats with no choice but to try and protect them all.

In December 1944, University of Michigan Professor Emeritus Andrew Nagy was 14 years old and living with his mother in one of Wallenberg’s safe houses. He watched as a neighboring safe house was emptied in the wintry night by Hungarian Nazis. The common practice at this point was to march Jews to the Danube, bind them into groups of three, and shoot the middle victim in the head. The dead body would fall into the river, pulling the other two down into the icy water. Nagy reports that Wallenberg and his staff retrieved 50 or 60  survivors from the river.

As the central ghetto was slated for liquidation in one last raid by the remnants of the Hungarian regime and its German collaborators, Wallenberg was contacted by a member of the Budapest police force, informing him of the planned attack. Wallenberg sent a message to Major General Gerhard Schmidhuber, the German officer set to lead the pogrom, stating that should Schmidhuber go forward and kill the Jews under international protection, Wallenberg would see him tried as a criminal, not a soldier.

The assault was called off.

A Tragic Disappearance, an Incalculable Legacy

In February 1945, the Red Army finally liberated Budapest and the Jews protected by the international community. The 70,000 Jews in the central ghetto were among the 100,000 Jews still surviving in Budapest. Of the 800,000 Jews living in Hungary before the war, only about 250,000 survived to see the end of it.

Several weeks before the liberation, Wallenberg had sought out the leadership of the Red Army. During the political chaos, Wallenberg likely had hopes that the Allied-aligned Russians would assist in his diplomatic efforts—not to mention bring relief to a population of people who badly needed aid. Food, water, and proper sanitation had been scarce for much of the war. Long term, Wallenberg had plans for helping rebuild the Jewish community in Budapest, and even for restoring Jewish homes and lost property. He wanted to meet with Russian officials as soon as possible. His spirits were high.

The Russians arrived to greet him on January 17, 1945, with a large escort of officers and soldiers. Before he departed, Wallenberg left a large amount of cash with members of his staff to continue his work. He was reported to have said, wryly, “They were ordered here for my sake, but I don’t know if they are here to protect me or guard me. I don’t know if I am [their] guest or their prisoner.”

Wallenberg likely went into his meetings with the Soviets with the same calm confidence that had served him so well all the years of his life. Whatever spirit he had in him, in the end, it wasn’t enough. Stalin had personally ordered his arrest.

The Soviets likely believed that Wallenberg was a spy. Though he was employed within the Swedish diplomatic corps and his position had been requested by the WRB, Wallenberg had been hired by Iver Olsen, a man who was also an OSS agent. It surely didn’t help his case.

The Soviets took him to the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Once he was gone, they looted the ghetto.

Wallenberg remained in Soviet custody for at least two years, but his case was only put before Stalin once. Stalin made no comment on the case, and so it was finished. Wallenberg was lost to the gulag. The Soviets claimed that, in 1947, at the age of 34, he died of a heart attack.

In 1963, Israel recognized Wallenberg as one of the Righteous Gentiles Among the Nations for his work saving Jews in the Holocaust. In 1981, U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos successfully lobbied Congress to grant Wallenberg honorary U.S. citizenship. Lantos had escaped Nazi labor camps twice, and then hid for a time with his aunt in a Budapest safe house set up by Wallenberg. In 1987, Wallenberg was granted honorary Israeli citizenship.

In 1990, the University of Michigan inaugurated the Wallenberg Medal for outstanding humanitarian work. Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and witness to the Holocaust, was the first recipient. In 1995, a sculpture was dedicated on U-M’s North Campus by Swedish Ambassador Per Anger, who had worked with Wallenberg in Budapest. The title of the sculpture by Jon Rush is Koszonom Raoul Wallenberg. Translated: Thank you Raoul Wallenberg.

The 22nd Raoul Wallenberg Medal will be awarded to environmental activist Maria Gunnoe on October 23, 2012. Click here for more information.

Sources: Schreiber, P., Lowenstein, J. Remembering Raoul Wallenberg: The University of Michigan Celebrates Twentieth-century Heroes (University of Michigan Press, 2001). Palmklint, I., Larsson, D. Raoul Wallenberg: Report of the Swedish-Russian Working Group. Stockholm: Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 2000. Wallenberg, Raoul. Letters and Dispatches, 1924–1944 (Arcade Publishing, 1995).
Photo (top): Keystone/Getty Images.

This article will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of LSA Magazine.