Raoul Wallenberg was a hero. He is credited with saving the lives of up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews in the last year of WWII. And yet, he wasn’t a diplomat or a military man; he was an architect whose journey to Budapest was years in the making.
Raoul was born in Sweden, the son of a prominent Swedish banking family. He was raised by his grandfather to be a citizen of the world – well read, well traveled and well spoken. His interest in architecture led him to the University of Michigan in the United States, where he graduated in 1935. Through his family’s contacts, he soon found himself international manager of a Swedish-based import and export firm. In that capacity, he made numerous trips to Nazi-occupied France, Germany, and other European countries.
How this was possible? Sweden had declared itself to have a "non-belligerency policy," meaning essentially that it was to be neutral, supporting neither the Allies nor the Axis powers. Nazi Germany allowed this because Sweden was its major source of iron ore, needed for weaponry. Despite its claim of neutrality, Sweden provided 10 million tons of ore per year to the Reich. It also allowed German soldiers to be transported through Sweden for Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Thus Swedish businessmen, like Raoul, were able to travel safely in Nazi territory.
In June of 1944, amidst the frenzied murder of 430,000 Hungarian Jews, the U.S. War Refugee Board and the Swedish Red Cross recruited 32-year-old Raoul to go to Budapest to try to help in whatever way possible. He was appointed Secretary of the Swedish Ligation and went immediately to work. He established hospitals, nurseries, and soup kitchens for Jews. But more importantly, he began issuing "Schutzpasses," which conferred Swedish citizenship, and providing housing in Budapest for these new citizens. He recruited hundreds of volunteers to produce the necessary forged documents and was often seen personally pulling Jews out of line as they boarded trains for Auschwitz. When asked about his work, he said, "For me there’s no other choice. I’ve accepted this assignment and I could never return to Stockholm without the knowledge that I’d done everything in human power to save as many Jews as possible."
The Soviets liberated Budapest in February of 1945 and immediately arrested Raoul for suspected espionage. They reported his death from a heart attack two years later, but their claim was considered unreliable. The Swedish government officially declared him dead 71 years later, in October 2016. While scholars continue to debate the role of Sweden in WWII, no one questions the role of Raul Wallenberg – hero.
Raoul Wallenberg is an honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia and the city of Budapest and is honored as Righteous Among Nations.