Baby Raoul Wallenberg came into the world in 1912 as the newest member of Sweden’s most influential banking and business family, founders of Stockholm’s Enskilda Bank, an assiduously conservative organisation.
He died 35 or 40 years later, perhaps as early as 17 July 1947, although his date of death was subsequently declared as 31 July 1952. Interestingly, the Swedish Tax Agency officially acknowledged his death in October 2016. There is a better understanding of the circumstances on reading a new book.
Raoul Wallenberg by Ingrid Carlsberg is the latest of several books that tell the tale of a man from a privileged background who became a hero to Hungarian Jews, many thousands of whom he saved from the terrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Sadly, although he lived through the later stages of the German occupation of Hungary, he was imprisoned by the Russians and died of “…perhaps heart failure.”
Ms Carlsberg’s book, released through Hachette Australia, is the second I have read about the young man and his work. In part due to her research, including speaking in 2010 with by then elderly members of Raoul’s immediate family (one of whom died just a few months later, aged 100), and in part due to her sensitive approach, I made a connection with the subject that was previously lacking.
Raoul’s education and future were planned and carefully controlled by his grandfather, Gustaf, who was the Swedish envoy to Constantinople. He was initially an ordinary student, needing to swot and re-sit at least two end-of-year examinations to enable his passage to higher classes. Even early in the book, this seems to explain some part of the reason he developed a strong personality, albeit combined with humility.
He attended the University of Michigan, studying and excelling in architecture. He hoped to return to Sweden to spend time with his immediate family but it was not to be. His grandfather, who funded his education, wanted Raoul to become a man of the world and to experience business in countries other than his own. Still supported by grand-paternal funding, he entered unpaid indentureships in countries including South Africa and Palestine, advancing his business acumen. In Palestine, the young would-be businessman developed several long-term relationships with Jewish contemporaries. These would be telling in only a few years’ time as Hitler led the world into universal war and Jewish persecution.
Finally at home and attempting to establish his future in business, his plans altered when Germany overran Poland and war began in Europe. Raoul was uneasy about Sweden’s neutrality, especially when the Germans entered Denmark and Norway (during which the Swedish government even allowed passage to German troop trains), despite one of the businesses with which Raoul was involved dealing with the Vichy government, trading horses to France in return for truck tyres.
Business partnership with a Hungarian Jewish friend, Kálmán Lauer, eventually unable to return to Budapest, took Raoul frequently to the Hungarian capital. As a neutral, he also made a number of trips to Germany and Occupied France and was able to observe much of what the Nazi regime did, gaining information that would later become valuable. The war was no longer going so well for Germany, her forces suffering their first major reversal with defeat at Stalingrad. The Hungarians, who fought alongside them, incurred massive losses. Behind Hitler’s back, the Horthy government, seeing the writing on the wall, began secret negotiations with the Allies. In such circumstances, in 1944, German troops occupied Hungary.
Eventually, in mid-1944, Raoul Wallenberg returned to Budapest as a diplomat (he was the second choice; the first, Falke Bernadotte, a member of the Swedish royal family, was rejected by the Hungarians), with the purpose of helping to save the country’s remaining Jewish population. In the three months up to Raoul’s arrival in July, Adolf Eichmann had deported at least four hundred thousand Hungarian Jews, the majority of whom had been sent directly to the extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. By that time, there were perhaps fewer than a quarter million Jews remaining in Hungary.
Raoul arranged manufacture and issue of protective passes to Jewish people, allowing them to remove the yellow stars previously sewn onto their clothing and be treated as Swedish citizens, including safe passage to Sweden for many. Funds had been raised by a committee in his homeland and he used these to rent many buildings, giving them names such as “Swedish Research Institute” or “Swedish Library,” suspending large Swedish flags outside each. By this means alone – and it was but one of many ploys he used – did he manage to protect at least ten thousand.
There is a whole lot more to the man and his work than can be discussed in such a brief forum. The name Raoul Wallenberg will be forever synonymous with what can be achieved by men and women of will in the face of evil. The book that bears his name is exceptional, one it is befitting we all read, especially to know it is possible to help the downtrodden even in the face of such incredible opposing odds.
The tragedy of his story is that, as the Russians entered Hungary, he approached their leadership to ensure continued safety for his charges. He was incarcerated by them, dying a sad and lonely death within either months or, perhaps, a few years. The memory of Raoul Wallenberg is upheld in many ways by many countries, including Hungary, Israel, the US, Canada, Argentina and Australia. In a few short months, he became one of mankind’s great humanitarians.