Acts of Heroism

Acts of Heroism

by William Korey


Wallenberg’s exploits were extraordinary. With no weaponry and minimal political leverage, he concocted fantastically clever schemes to rescue a significant segment of Hungarian Jewry. He created, printed, and distributed the Schutzpass (protective passport) carrying the insignia of the Swedish crown, which was supposed to ensure their holders of Swedish protection.4 This was Wallenberg’s top priority almost from the moment he arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944.

In fact, as his colleague at the Swedish legation, Lars Berg, would later comment, "the most remarkable thing about his [Wallenberg’s] work was that it was not based on any legal rights whatsoever."5 No one at the Swedish legation, Berg explained, had any right or authority to interfere with the way Hungarian officials or the Nazi military who backed them chose to handle their "Jewish problem." Berg further observed:

Nor was Wallenberg supported by physical force. Neither weapons nor soldiers gave weight to his words. He began his mission with only one source of power: an unfaltering faith in himself buttressed by the justness of his cause.

Wallenberg had been trained as an architect and was therefore familiar with design techniques. He devised this formal passport complete with a number, the official seal of Sweden—three crowns—and the legation minister’s signature. The passport stated that the holder was to go to Sweden within the framework of repatriation authorized by the Swedish Foreign Office. Until the bearer’s departure, he and his property were under the protection of the Swedish legation. Wallenberg persuaded the Hungarian authorities to recognize the passports.6

Endless hours were spent printing the documents. Wallenberg was personally involved in the process, aided by volunteer workers recruited from the Jewish community, who themselves were among the first bearers of the passports. Eventually, the number of these volunteers reached 350. One of them later related that, at Wallenberg’s insistence, "we had to work around the clock." She observed, too, that there was no such thing as a day off; instead, when tired, "we would lie on the floor for an hour’s nap."7

Knowledgeable sources estimated that some 15-20,000 protective passports were in circulation. But no accurate figures are possible since the documents, once prepared, could be, and were, forged or reproduced by others. The most dramatic impact of the faked passports came in November 1944 when Adolf Eichmann ordered the deportation of Jews by trains to death camps. As described by two biographers, Wallenberg, oblivious to his own safety, would appear suddenly on top of a deportation train "handing out Swedish papers to all the hands that could reach them." He would then insist that those holding papers be allowed off the train.8 Or he would show up at a train stop, climb aboard and shout to the Jews: "Get off this train. I issued you a passport. Your name is right here in my book!"9 And Jews would get off the train and climb aboard trucks whose timely arrival has been arranged by Wallenberg.

Even more daring was Wallenberg’s method of interrupting death marches and rescuing some of the doomed. By the end of November the Nazi war machine was in desperate straits in the face of the Soviet and Western onslaughts. With a shortage of trains to transport Jews to the gas chambers, Eichmann ordered death marches of over one hundred miles to the murder sites. He had to contend, however, with Wallenberg, who would appear at the site of the death march and literally pull people out. He would shout, "In the name of the [Hungarian] government, I demand those with Swedish passports to raise them high." Then, after identifying himself as "Wallenberg, Swedish legation," he would point to an astonished man and yell: "You there! Give me your Swedish passport and get in that line. And you [pointing to another], get behind him. I know I issued you a passport."10

The initially confused Jews would quickly grasp the ruse-in-the-making. They would reach in their pockets for any type of identification, such as a driver’s license or birth certificate. Within minutes, Wallenberg had the Jews climbing into International Red Cross trucks that he had assembled. On the way back to Budapest, Wallenberg, with the help of his colleague, Per Anger, filled out protective passports that they had brought along. Along the way, the trucks would stop at first-aid stations where food was delivered to the marchers. Aware that a little bribery could be useful, Wallenberg made certain that that nearby policemen would be given mugs of cognac and packages of cigarettes. The cash to pay for this came from a Swedish bank account—the funds for which were supplied by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the U.S. government—as well as payoffs from six warehouses that had been stocked with foodstuffs and other valuables, used primarily for Jews in need.11

Not all of Wallenberg’s colleagues were enthusiastic about the protective passports. Lars Berg related that he and Anger "argued often with Raoul about these passes."12 They feared that their mass production would lead to a glut and result in their having "no value at all." But, Berg went on:

Our arguments were pointless. Raoul was determined to have his way. When it came to saving lives, Raoul felt he knew best what would work.

In the end, Wallenberg’s swashbuckling initiative paid off in the saving of lives. According to one foreign diplomat, "Raoul accomplished feats that no other twenty diplomats in the world would even have attempted."13 At the Eichmann trial in 1961, prosecutor Gideon Hausner captured the special quality of Wallenberg as a diplomat "who threw protocol to the wind to save human lives."14

The Schutzpass was not the only trick in Wallenberg’s bag. He also rented buildings on the Pest side of Budapest and unfurled the Swedish flag. After long and arduous negotiations, he got permission from the Hungarian ruler, Miklos Horthy, for those with protective passports to live in these designated buildings. The illusion was created that the inhabitants of "Swedish Houses" enjoyed a special right of "diplomatic immunity" while they presumably awaited departure for Sweden. With the number of passports increasing daily, an intensified flow of new residents would enter the buildings, frequently during the dark of night. By the end of 1944, thirty-two such houses had been rented. Estimates placed the number of their residents holding protective passports at 13,000.15

Wallenberg’s gall in maintaining the security of these houses—and he deliberately chose to live near them in the Pest side of Budapest—can be seen in the following episode. As Arrow Cross activists (Hungarian Nazis) with rifles were breaking into the Swedish-rented houses, Wallenberg suddenly arrived, confronting them with nothing but his blustering moral authority: "Cowards! Slobs! What criminal arrogance! How dare you enter a Swedish-protected house! Nothing takes place without my permission."16 The bluff worked.

A similar episode was recorded by an eyewitness. Nazis had just seized one of these buildings, which housed some fifty Jewish tenants. After collecting all the wedding rings, small chains, and remaining food, they forced everyone into one corner of the yard. In the opposite corner stood a machine gun manned by three Nazis. The eyewitness, a hostage, recalled:

Then suddenly a group of people stormed the courtyard, led by Wallenberg. He seemed to me like an angel of mercy. He was shouting that this was an extraterritorial building. Little by little the shouting ceased, the Nazis picked themselves up and left. They left without taking what they gathered, the food, the rings, etcetera [sic]. We could not believe our own eyes.17

Wallenberg’s bravado reached a climax in early January 1945.18 As the Red Army was making deep inroads into Hungary, penetrating the outskirts of Budapest, German military officials with 500 soldiers at their disposal, together with the fanatical Arrow Cross, were planning the liquidation of Budapest’s central ghetto in which some 70,000 Jews lived. An Arrow Cross contact of Wallenberg’s learned about the plan. He told a trusted go-between to "get to Wallenberg. Tell him the pogrom is about to start."

Wallenberg conveyed a message through his Arrow Cross contact: "Wallenberg says to tell the German general that if he doesn’t stop this, the Swede will personally see to it that he is charged with murder and genocide by the War Crimes Tribunal." The SS general, August Schmidthuber, was not eager to face the anticipated Nuremberg Tribunal. He called in the commander of the German garrison as well as the representative of the Hungarian Arrow Cross government. "Call off your men," ordered Schmidthuber, "there will be no pogrom." Wallenberg’s role in preventing a pogrom of 70,000 Hungarian Jews, when added to the 20-30,000 saved through protection passes whether in or out of "Swedish houses," lead some to claim that the total rescued by this "Angel of Rescue" was 100,000.

The rescue of Budapest Jewry was certainly Wallenberg’s primary aim. But his fertile mind was already at work on a second scheme as well—an elaborate relief plan for the Jewish survivors.19 With the Red Army battering down the Nazi fortress in Hungary in December 1944, he had his staff work up the details that he himself hoped to deliver personally to the head of the Soviet occupation forces, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, whose headquarters were in Debrecen, some 130 miles from Budapest. Arrangements for a meeting with Malinovsky were made with the Soviet commander in Budapest, who assigned a Soviet military officer as well as a two-man motorcycle escort to Wallenberg and his Hungarian driver, Vilmos Langfelder.

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