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The Angel of Budapest: What Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?

Randy Pinsky

The Holocaust was a time of terror, of bigotry, of delayed international response- interspersed with some sparks of humanity[i]. Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, called ‘the ‘Angel of Budapest’ by those he saved with the Schutz-Pass passports of protection[ii], was one such spark. 

On January 17, 1945, soon after the Americans liberated Auschwitz, Wallenberg was taken by the Russians - never to be heard from again. 

Why, after 77 years, is his fate still shrouded in mystery? Why is more effort placed on commemorating his heroism than holding those responsible for his disappearance to account? And perhaps most problematic: why does the Russian government persist in denying access to archives about ‘Prisoner #7’? 

“Wallenberg Did Not Just Disappear in 1945 - He Disappeared Today”[iii]

While many feel the Wallenberg case is simply one of those unsolved historical mysteries, the lack of closure bears contemporary relevance about justice, the continued suppression of truth, and state accountability.

B’nai Brith Canada hosted human rights lawyer David Matas, historian Susanne Berger, and International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Irwin Cotler on January 17 to discuss the 77th anniversary of Wallenberg’s vanishing.

An Unexpected Hero

On March 19, 1944, Hungary was invaded by the Nazis. By this time, the world was aware of the hate-inspired propaganda and violence happening in Europe. The United States established the War Refugee Board (WRB) to work on site to save Jewish families from Nazi persecution. “Once the WRB understood that Sweden was making serious attempts to save Jews in Hungary, it set out to find someone who could launch a major rescue operation in Budapest. 

Wallenberg was offered the job and accepted.” (Sweden site).

In spite of being a businessman with little diplomatic experience, Sweden’s new special envoy to Hungary arrived in Budapest “with a singular mission - to save as many Jews as possible, by any means possible” (Raoul Wallenberg Legacy of Leadership Project). 

Protective Passports

“Through integrity and innovation, bluff and bravado, Wallenberg somehow managed to save thousands of Jews,” observed Cotler. “What the international community did not [or could not] do, one person did.”

By 1944, the Nazis had streamlined their murderous intentions by crowding Jewish families into ghettos. Eichmann was increasing his murderously efficient train shipments to camps. 

The first thing Wallenberg did was to design a protective Swedish passport. Furnished with official stamps and signatures, these pieces of paper were literal lifelines for many Jews being herded into trains. While Wallenberg was able to get approval for 4,500 passes from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, he in fact issued three times as many.[iv]

Armed with these protective passes, Wallenberg confronted the Nazis, demanding the release of Jews as protected citizens. “Toward the end of the war when conditions were desperate, Wallenberg issued a simplified version of his protective passport that bore only his signature. 

In the prevailing chaos, even this worked” (Sweden site).

The Fateful Day

Diplomat Per Anger was stationed in Budapest as a secretary at the Swedish delegation. Concerned for his colleague’s life, he urged Wallenberg to seek safety. 

The diplomat famously replied, “To me, there is 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” (Sweden site).[v]

On January 17, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg was taken by Russian soldiers, “supposedly to meet with top Soviet general Malinovsky.” (Yad Vashem).

He was never seen from again

77 Years Later and No Definitive Answers

According to witnesses, Wallenberg had a premonition about the danger of this ‘visit’. As he was led to the car, he commented, “I don’t know whether I am being taken as a guest of the Soviets or as their prisoner” (Yad Vashem). 

While at first the Swedish government pressed Russia for information, this soon petered out. “Wallenberg saved so many, but wasn’t saved by those who could,” condemned Cotler. The fact that he has been made an honorary citizen in several countries (Canada, US[vi], Israel) means that governments have the right to demand information about his fate, just as with any citizen (Matas). 

Yet states appear to spend more energy on commemorating him rather than investigating why the archives remain closed. 

At first, Russia denied any knowledge about Wallenberg. But in 1957, they claimed he died in prison from a heart attack; a story few believe due to his young age, as well as the fact that the date was exactly two years after his capture.

When they did reluctantly release information, the stories were inconsistent and faulty, the documents selectively chosen and out of context. Research groups dedicated to the Wallenberg case find this inexcusable and are committed to “bringing justice, truth and accountability to the fore- that is the least that is owed to his family, to those he saved - to all of humanity” (Cotler).

Contemporary Relevance

Wallenberg set standards for diplomatic protections of persecuted peoples and international justice. “He inspired us to fight for human rights- now we have to use them to fight for him,'' stated Matas. “This wrong is a continuing wrong as long as the disappearance remains unexplained [and unaccounted for].”

As Berger exploded, “What good are these [international] laws and conventions if they are not used?”

Numerous incidents have contributed to the mystery of the case such as witnesses claiming to have met or seen Wallenberg after his alleged death. As a famous prisoner, “to say that those documents about him are somehow missing, is simply not credible” (Matas). 

What frustrates the researchers most is that the Swedish authorities have essentially accepted the Russian claims without question. “Why the extreme Swedish passivity?” demanded Berger. “Why didn't they act with more vigor and determination about his disappearance?

Why was Wallenberg so expendable to the Swedish authorities?”

Implications Today

While the Holocaust prompted critical developments to international justice, the Wallenberg case demonstrates that there are still many unresolved problems. “Historic truths matter- the issues at the heart of the Wallenberg case are as relevant today as they were 77 years ago” (Berger). 

But the advocacy groups are not willing to give up just yet, determined to insist on a break in Russia’s wall of silence and make it “a legacy in the pursuit of justice and on behalf of the common good” (Cotler).

For, as stated by Matas, “The case of [Raoul] Wallenberg will continue to concern people until it is solved. It will only go away once we have the answers- not because Russia thinks it should.”

1)    B’nai Brith Canada: ‘The Legacy of Raoul Wallenberg’, January 17, 2022
2)    Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University: The Raoul Wallenberg Legacy of Leadership Project
3)    Sweden site: Raoul Wallenberg – World War II Hero 
4)    Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center: A Swedish Rescuer in Budapest
[i] The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the ‘Beyond Duty’ exhibition across the world in 2018 in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27). It showcased the lives of righteous diplomats who rescued hundreds of Jewish people during the Holocaust.
[ii] The Azrieli Foundation has ‘the Holocaust Survivors Memoirs Program’ with numerous testimonies. 
[iii] David Matas, human rights lawyer.
[iv] Jessica Gal, Executive Assistant at Montreal’s Segal Center, recalls how there was “a series of miracles and close calls” in her parents’ lives. “[My mother] remembers being put on a train…a lot of commotion, and someone pushing some papers into her mother’s hand…she showed [them] to some men in uniform and they were subsequently taken off the train. No more details than that…but we can’t imagine what else it could have been. That was [Wallenberg’s] modus operandi.
[v] The Jewish concept of Pikuach Nefesh means that if you have saved one life, it's as if you saved the entire universe.
[vi] Awarded honorary American citizenship by the US Congress, promoted by Congressman Tom Lantos whose life was saved by Wallenberg (Yad Vashem)

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