As a young man growing up in Sweden, Raoul Wallenberg couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do with his life. His family expected him to become a banker, but his grandfather also wanted him to travel Europe. Wallenberg thought traveling to foreign countries was exciting, so with his grandfather’s blessing he worked for a branch of the family’s bank in Haifa, Palestine. Since he arrived in Palestine during the 1930s, the boarding house where he stayed at night was filled with Jewish families who recently fled Germany. Adolf Hitler was in power and the Nazi party placed harsh penalties on the Jews, making it difficult for them to earn a living or even walk the streets without fear of being beaten.
Traveling Europe after World War II
Bored with his work, Wallenberg left the bank. After World War II began, he met a Jewish businessman named Koloman Lauer from Hungary. Wallenberg’s home country stayed neutral during the war, but Hungary’s alliance with Germany made it impossible for native Jewish businessmen to travel in Europe. Instead, Lauer hired Wallenberg to travel on his behalf. Though Wallenberg enjoyed traveling, what he saw in Nazi-occupied territories like Hungary disturbed him. He encountered Nazis beating Jews in the streets and saw families rounded up and sent to so-called labor camps where they seemed to disappear. Wallenberg’s family was Jewish and he wanted to do something help, but he didn’t know what he could do.
Finally, in 1944, Wallenberg received the opportunity to aid Europe’s Jews. The United States had just formed the War Refugee Board, which was designed to provide rescue and relief programs for European Jews. The Board’s representative in Sweden needed a Swedish diplomat who could travel to Budapest, Hungary and rescue Jews there. Wallenberg’s boss mentioned his name to the WRB representative in Sweden, Iver Olsen. Olsen met with Wallenberg and warned him of the dangers of his mission. Wallenberg didn’t care about himself—he just wanted to do something to stop the Nazis.
Efforts to Protect Hungarian Jews
When he arrived in Hungary, Wallenberg decided the best way to protect Jews was to provide them with Swedish identification badges. The badges proved that these Jews had ties to the neutral country of Sweden and therefore could not be deported by the Nazis. When Wallenberg ran out of official badges, he printed his own. Approximately 7,000 Hungarians received protective badges. Wallenberg also turned large houses in Budapest into Swedish safe houses and allowed Jewish people to live in them. Each house flew the Swedish flag, signifying neutral territory. The badges and safe houses all served the purpose of protecting Jews from deportation to concentration camps where Jews were killed. With the help of a Jewish staff, Wallenberg also worked on other projects, like setting up hospitals and soup kitchens for needy Jews.
Despite Wallenberg’s best efforts to protect Hungarian Jews, the Nazis sometimes tried to defy him. On one occasion, he returned to the safe houses and discovered German troops rounding up all the able-bodied Jewish men. When the German patrol refused to leave, Wallenberg said, “As long as I live, none will be taken out of here. First you will have to shoot me.” The Nazis decided against making an enemy out of Sweden by killing Wallenberg, so the patrol left. Unfortunately, they returned later to snatch a handful of Jews and placed them on a train bound for a concentration camp. Undaunted, Wallenberg sped away in his car and caught up with the train. He shouted for the Jews onboard to show their papers, and anyone with Swedish papers returned to the safe houses with him.
Results of Wallenberg’s Work
Wallenberg’s massive efforts helped save tens of thousands of Jews. Though Wallenberg mysteriously disappeared when the Soviet Army arrived in Budapest in 1945, he left a legacy of helping others even when the task endangered his life.