The American Role

The American Role

by William Korey

How Wallenberg became involved in this extraordinary saga underscores the unique role of the United States in his activities and, therefore, its distinctive responsibility and obligation to find out his fate.

On January 22, 1944, the United States created the War Refugee Board (WRB).25 Till then the United States, most egregiously the State Department, had failed to respond effectively to the Nazi persecution of European Jews. President Roosevelt created the board after Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. confronted him with overpowering evidence that the State Department had not only been uncooperative in saving European Jewry but had actually hampered rescue. The findings, researched by high Treasury officials, required immediate action, as the Holocaust, which had already struck much of Europe, would soon threaten the last sizable European Jewish community, that in Hungary. President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board within the Treasury Department to seek to save Hungary’s Jews.

It was none too soon. On March 15 the Nazis swept into Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was authorized to bring about the "final solution" for its 800,000 Jews. President Roosevelt vigorously spoke out, warning that war crimes, including the massacre of Jews, would not go unpunished. Offices of the War Refugee Board were established in several countries, none more important than Sweden. As a neutral country with a legation functioning in Hungary, Sweden was indispensable to the humanitarian effort. It made its diplomatic office in Budapest the centerpiece of a major rescue mission, and Raoul Wallenberg would become its instrument.

The United States, through the War Refugee Board, selected Wallenberg and provided him the guidelines for his mission to save the Jews of Hungary.26 The key American figure was Iver C. Olsen, the representative of the War Refugee Board in Stockholm. In addition to his WRB functions, Olsen represented the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—in Sweden. This fact might, indeed, have piqued later Kremlin suspicion, especially since we now know that Soviet agents made "extensive penetrations of OSS" almost from the very moment the latter was organized.27

Olsen had to find a Swede who could handle an extremely difficult and dangerous task with intelligence, energy, compassion, and courage. He established a small, ad hoc committee of prominent Swedish Jews to advise in the selection process. After a Hungarian government veto of the committee’s initial choice, Wallenberg came under consideration. He had been working for Kalaman Lauer, the head of a trading company, and Lauer, part of the inner Jewish leadership group, was greatly impressed by Wallenberg’s abilities, telling Olsen that Wallenberg was "the only one with the courage to undertake the mission."28

Olsen met privately with Wallenberg on June 9, 1944, in a marathon twelve-hour session that lasted into the early morning of the following day. The WRB representative was more than impressed. He later told the Jewish News of Newark, New Jersey, that Wallenberg appeared to be "extraordinarily imaginative and vigorous"; indeed, "he was perfect for the job."29 Olsen arranged for the head of the U.S. legation in Stockholm, Herschel Johnson, to see Wallenberg. Johnson’s reaction was equally favorable. By the end of June, the Swedish government had appointed Wallenberg secretary of its legation in Budapest, with the understanding that the new Swedish diplomat would operate under the aegis of the United States, specifically the War Refugee Board.

Johnson reported to the State Department that he and Olsen wanted the WRB to focus on "implementing this action [the appointment of Wallenberg] of the Swedish government, particularly with respect to financial support." Shortly afterward, Johnson cabled the State Department that the Swedish Foreign Office felt it had cooperated in "lending all possible facilities for the furtherance of the American program" (emphasis added).30 In fact, Johnson continued, "Wallenberg was fully aware that he was in effect carrying out a humanitarian mission on behalf of the War Refugee Board." On June 21, 1944, Johnson reported to the State Department that "the specific purpose" of Wallenberg’s appointment was to deal with the "persecution of Jews and minorities." Wallenberg sought from the board "full instructions as to the line of activities he [was] authorized to carry out" as well as "assurances of adequate financial support for these activities."

The reply came on July 7 from U.S. secretary of state Cordell Hull. It spelled out the "general approach" to be used by Wallenberg and promised appropriate funding for a variety of purposes, including "inducements" to facilitate the rescue of Jews. If a proposal had a financially "substantial character," it would have to be "referred to the board for clearance." Hull wanted Wallenberg to communicate to the appropriate persons that there was "no question of American determination to see to it that those who [shared] the guilt [of persecuting Jews would] be punished." At the same time, the U.S. secretary of state was emphatic that the U.S. connection must be hidden from public view. Wallenberg, he stressed, "cannot of course act" as the representative of the WRB "nor purport to act in its name." Even so, the Swedish diplomat should not hesitate to advance "specific proposals" to Olsen.

Wallenberg could not wait to take on his new responsibilities. Initially, it was expected that he would leave Stockholm toward the end of July. Instead, he left Stockholm on July 6. "Every day I stay costs human lives," he wrote Lauer.31 After a short stay in Berlin, he arrived in Budapest on July 9.

That the 32-year-old Wallenberg would be willing, indeed eager, to undertake an American-sponsored task to rescue Jews was not as odd as it might appear. Born in 1912 into a prominent Swedish family of bankers, businessmen, and diplomats, Raoul was no stranger to the United States or to Jewish concerns. He had traveled extensively through the United States in the 1930s and had studied architecture at the University of Michigan. He took pride in the fact that his maternal great-great-grandfather was of Jewish origin. In 1936 he had gone to work in Haifa for a Dutch bank, perhaps in preparation for a banking career with his Swedish family. While in Haifa, he came to know young Jews who had fled to Palestine from Hitler’s Germany. Their experiences profoundly affected him.32

Wallenberg’s impressive achievements for the War Refugee Board and, therefore, for the United States did not go unnoticed in Washington. At the end of 1944, while in the midst of his rescue work, he received a personal letter from John Pehle, the executive director of the WRB, delivered in the Swedish diplomatic pouch. Pehle wrote: "You have made a very great personal contribution.... I wish to express our very deep appreciation for the vigor and ingenuity which you brought to our common humanitarian undertaking."33 Acting Secretary of State Edward Stettinius cabled Olsen to convey to Wallenberg the U.S. government’s "sincere appreciation" for "the courage and ingenuity displayed by Mr. Wallenberg himself."34 In Olsen’s final report to the War Refugee Board, he credited Wallenberg with saving 100,000 lives, 20,000 of which were saved by means of the Schutzpass. The report described "the work of Raoul Wallenberg" as being "nothing short of brilliant—to say nothing of being highly courageous."35

But it would take nearly thirty-five years for the U.S. government formally to recognize Wallenberg’s heroic work. In the fall of 1981 the Congress of the United States bestowed upon him a special, almost unprecedented, distinction for a foreigner—"Honorary Citizen"—that had theretofore been granted only to Winston Churchill. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation on October 5. The move in Congress was initiated by Representative Tom Lantos of California, himself a survivor of the Hungarian inferno. In his Wallenberg initiative, Lantos was strongly supported by his wife, Annette, also a survivor of Budapest, who said of Wallenberg: "He was like a Moses from the north, who came to us in the most terrible days." The Lantos resolution was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives on March 26, 1981, with 258 cosponsors. These members of Congress hoped that the resolution would "give the State Department the legal basis to pursue the case of the ultimate American hostage."

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