I have read a lot about this remarkable man and hero and I was reluctant to write an article about him, because I just didn’t think I would do him justice. However since it is the 72nd anniversary of his disappearance I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at some elements of his life, including his disappearance.
Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg led one of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts during the Nazi era. His work with the War Refugee Board and the World Jewish Congress saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.
On 17 January 1945, during the Siege of Budapest by the Red Army, Wallenberg was detained by SMERSH on suspicion of espionage and subsequently disappeared.
Raoul Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912, in Stockholm, Sweden.
After studying in the United States in the 1930s and establishing himself in a business career in Sweden, Wallenberg was recruited by the US War Refugee Board (WRB) in June 1944 to travel to Hungary. Given status as a diplomat by the Swedish legation, Wallenberg’s task was to do what he could to assist and save Hungarian Jews.
Beginning in 1938, the Kingdom of Hungary, under the regency of Miklós Horthy, passed a series of anti-Jewish measures modeled on the so-called Nuremberg Race Laws enacted in Germany by the Nazis in 1935.
Like their German counterparts, the Hungarian laws focused heavily on restricting Jews from certain professions, reducing the number of Jews in government and public service jobs, and prohibiting intermarriage.
Before Wallenberg’s arrival, the Swedish embassy in Budapest was already issuing travel documents to Hungarian Jews – these special certificates functioned as a Swedish passport.
The papers had no real authority in law but the Swedes managed to persuade the Hungarian authorities that people holding them were under their protection.
When Wallenberg arrived, he decided that the certificates needed to look more official so he redesigned them. He introduced the colours of the Swedish flag, blue and yellow, marked the documents with government stamps and added Swedish crowns. It was known as a Schutz-Pass or protective pass.
After the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross movement seized power with the help of the Germans on October 15, 1944, the Arrow Cross government resumed the deportation of Hungarian Jews, which Horthy had halted in July before the Budapest Jews could be deported. As Soviet troops had already cut off rail transport routes to Auschwitz, Hungarian authorities forced tens of thousands of Budapest Jews to march west to the Hungarian border with Austria. During the autumn of 1944, Wallenberg repeatedly—and often personally—intervened to secure the release of those with certificates of protection or forged papers, saving as many people as he could from the marching columns.
On 29 October 1944, elements of the 2nd Ukrainian Front under Marshal Rodion Malinovsky launched an offensive against Budapest and by late December the city had been encircled by Soviet forces. Despite this the German commander of Budapest, SS Lieutenant General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, refused all offers to surrender, setting in motion a protracted and bloody siege of Budapest.
At the height of the fighting, on 17 January 1945, Wallenberg was called to General Malinovsky’s headquarters in Debrecen to answer allegations that he was engaged in espionage.
Wallenberg’s last recorded words were, “I’m going to Malinovsky’s … whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.”Documents recovered in 1993 from previously secret Soviet military archives and published in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet show that an order for Wallenberg’s arrest was issued by Deputy Commissar for Defence (and future Soviet Premier) Nikolai Bulganin and transmitted to Malinovsky’s headquarters on the day of Wallenberg’s disappearance. In 2003, a review of Soviet wartime correspondences indicated that Vilmos Böhm, a Hungarian politician who was also a Soviet intelligence agent, may have provided Wallenberg’s name to the SMERSH as a person to detain for possible involvement in espionage.
On 6 February 1957, the Soviet government released a document dated 17 July 1947, which stated “I report that the prisoner Wallenberg who is well-known to you, died suddenly in his cell this night, probably as a result of a heart attack or heart failure”
However newly published diaries of the first KGB chief,Ivan Serov, state that the Swedish diplomat was liquidated on Stalin’s orders in a Soviet prison in 1947.
Behind the diaries’ publication is Vera Serova, the KGB chairman’s only grandchild. Four years ago, Serova, a retired ballet dancer, wanted to renovate her grandfather’s Moscow dacha, which she inherited. The workmen found the journals in suitcases hidden inside the garage wall; they were disappointed that the treasure turned out not to be money or jewels but only papers.
“I have no doubts that Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947,” the ex-head of the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency writes in his diaries. Wallenberg was killed in a Soviet prison and Serov quotes his predecessor, Viktor Abakumov, as saying the order to kill Wallenberg came from the top: Joseph Stalin and then-foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
It is still not clear why he was killed.In May 1996 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released thousands of previously classified documents regarding Raoul Wallenberg, in response to requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
A communique sent on 7 November 1944 by the OSS, (the predecessor of the CIA) branch in Bari, Italy which apparently acknowledged that Wallenberg was acting as an unofficial liaison between the OSS and the Hungarian Independence Movement (MFM), an underground anti-Nazi resistance organization.This particular disclosure has given rise to speculation as to whether, in addition to his efforts to rescue the Hungarian Jews, Wallenberg may have also been pursuing a parallel clandestine mission aimed at politically destabilizing Hungary’s pro-Nazi government on behalf of the OSS. This would also seem to add some credence to the potential explanation that it was his association with US intelligence that led to Wallenberg being targeted by Soviet authorities in January 1945.
Several other humanitarians who had helped refugees during World War II disappeared behind the Iron Curtain in the period 1949/50.
On 29 March 2016, an announcement was made by the Swedish Tax Agency that a petition to have Wallenberg declared dead in absentia had been submitted. It stated that if he does not report to the Tax Agency before 14 October 2016, he will be declared dead legally.
Wallenberg was declared dead in October 2016. Consistently with the approach used in cases where the circumstances of death were not known, the Swedish tax agency recorded the date of his death as July 31, 1952, five years after he went missing.
His name has been honoured in several countries across the globe.