In the waning days of World War II (1939-45), Raoul Wallenberg (1912- c. 1947), a Swedish businessman-turned-diplomat based in Budapest, was responsible for the rescue of thousands–some estimates are as high as 100,000–of Hungarian Jews from extermination by the Nazis. 

Wallenberg handed out protective passports and set up safe houses for Jews, among other life-saving measures. In January 1945, he was detained by Soviet forces for reasons unknown, somewhere outside of Budapest, and never heard from again. Years later, Soviet officials admitted to taking Wallenberg into custody, but stated he had died of a heart attack in a Moscow prison in 1947. In the ensuing decades, various sources claimed that Wallenberg was still alive and being held by the Russians. While his exact fate remains a mystery, he has received numerous accolades for his humanitarianism.

Childhood of Privilege

Raoul Gustav Wallenberg was born near Stockholm, Sweden, on August 4, 1912. His parents both hailed from prominent Swedish families, whose members included bankers, bishops, diplomats and professors. Wallenberg’s father, Raoul Oskar Wallenberg (1888-1912), a lieutenant in the Swedish navy, had died of an illness three months before his son’s birth. His paternal grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg (1863-1937), a respected diplomat, took charge of shaping young Raoul’s life. The elder Wallenberg raised his grandson as a citizen of the world, ensuring he had opportunities to learn about different cultures and languages, and dispatching him on trips around Europe and other locales.

Did you know? Raoul Wallenberg is honored in the Guinness Book of World Records as having saved the greatest number of people from extinction.

Following high school, Wallenberg completed nine months of mandatory Swedish military service then spent a year in Paris. He went on to study architecture at the University of Michigan, where he was a top student and graduated in 1935.

An Awareness of Anti-Semitism

In 1936, Wallenberg began working for a Dutch bank in Haifa, a city in present-day northern Israel. While living in Haifa, he heard firsthand accounts from German-Jewish refugees about the plight of Jews under Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), who became the chancellor of Germany in 1933 and whose anti-Semitic Nazi Party was in control of the country.

By the early 1940s, Wallenberg had taken a job with a Stockholm-based food-exporting company. Its owner, a Jew, could no longer safely travel through much of Europe, which by that time was under Nazi domain. Wallenberg replaced him on such trips and thus became acquainted with Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Mass Murders of Hungarian Jews: 1944 In January 1944, the United States established a War Refugee Board to set in motion efforts to rescue European Jews and other Nazi victims. That March, the Nazis occupied Hungary, which was home to the last sizeable Eastern and Central European Jewish population. The pro-Nazi Hungarian government supported Germany’s plan to obliterate all European Jews. Also in March, Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962), the Nazi official responsible for overseeing the extradition of Jews to death camps, was sent to Budapest by Hitler. Eichmann’s mission was to supervise the liquidation of all Hungarian Jews.

By the summer, the Nazis had detained approximately 400,000 Hungarian Jews and dispatched them via deportation trains to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps (located in Poland, which was then occupied by Germany), where they were exterminated. An additional 200,000 were in Budapest, where they resided in ghettos and awaited their fate. Meanwhile, the War Refugee Board requested that Sweden, which had stayed neutral during the war, send a special envoy to Budapest to spearhead a rescue effort. Wallenberg was selected to be that envoy. He was an ideal choice, as he was sympathetic to the plight of European Jews, could speak Hungarian and German and was familiar with Budapest.

Rescue Efforts in Budapest

In July 1944, Wallenberg, then 31 years old, arrived in Budapest. He promptly opened a Swedish embassy office close to the city’s major Jewish ghetto and hired 400 individuals, many of them Jews who had been granted diplomatic immunity, to operate the facility. During the following months, Wallenberg’s office provided protective passports to approximately 20,000 Jews. These passports allowed their bearers shelter under the domain of the Swedish crown, protecting them from deportation. Wallenberg also established dozens of safe houses that served as hideouts for thousands of Jews. He ordered that the Swedish flag be flown over these houses, thus converting them into official Swedish embassy annexes and shielding their inhabitants from the Nazis.

Wallenberg employed his financial resources to buy off German officials. In order to achieve his ends, he had to at once befriend them, cajole them and remind them that, at war’s end, they would be treated as criminals rather than combatants on the losing side of a conflict. He created cells of spies who provided him with information about the goings-on within the Budapest police department and the Hungarian fascist political establishment. He also personally rescued Jews from the deportation trains. As the trains were about to leave Budapest, Wallenberg appeared at the rail yard and handed out Swedish papers to all those onboard whom he could physically reach. Then he argued that all those holding papers should be let off the trains.Wallenberg accomplished all this while in great personal danger. On at least one occasion, during the fall of 1944, Eichmann tried to have him assassinated by attacking his car. However, Wallenberg was not in the vehicle at the time of the attack. Eichmann reportedly promised that other attempts would be made on Wallenberg’s life.

Despite such pressure, Wallenberg persisted in his efforts to thwart the Nazis. He even challenged Eichmann directly, suggesting to him during a face-to-face exchange that the Germans were destined to lose the war and might as well surrender.

Arrest and Disappearance

In December 1944, the Soviet military began a siege of Budapest. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, began a journey to Debrecen, located 120 miles east of Budapest, where the Soviets and a provisional Hungarian government were headquartered. The exact purpose of the trip is unknown, although one possibility is that Wallenberg wanted to discuss how to protect the Jews from pro-Nazi Hungarian thugs once the Red Army left the country. However, along the way to the meeting, Wallenberg and his driver were taken into custody by Soviet forces. What happened to the two men next remains a mystery, as they were never seen or heard from again by the outside world.

In 1947, Andrei Vyshinsky (1883-1954), the Soviet deputy foreign minister, announced that Wallenberg was not in the Soviet Union and suggested he had possibly died during the Russian effort to seize Budapest. Then, in 1957, Andrei Gromyko (1909-89), the country’s new deputy foreign minister, admitted that Wallenberg had been imprisoned by the Soviets. According to Gromyko, it was revealed in recently discovered paperwork that Wallenberg had succumbed to heart disease in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison in July 1947 and was then cremated. The paperwork never was handed over to the Swedish authorities, nor was any explanation given as to why Wallenberg had been incarcerated. Some experts suggested that the Soviets might have believed Wallenberg was a spy for Western nations.

The Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg

As the decades passed, various unconfirmed reports from released Soviet prisoners and others surfaced regarding Wallenberg’s fate, with some claiming the Swedish humanitarian was still alive and in Soviet custody. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wallenberg’s heroism and the mystery surrounding his disappearance had earned international notoriety. Believing him to still be living, some humanitarian organizations and individuals, including many whose lives were spared because of his valor, spearheaded a movement to have him released by the Russians and relocated to the U.S. In the meantime, Wallenberg was showered with worldwide tributes. In 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) signed legislation naming Wallenberg an honorary American citizen, a mark of distinction that until that time had been earned only by Winston Churchill (1874-1965).

In 1991, Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007), the Russian president, formed a commission to investigate the Wallenberg case. No new evidence was unearthed. Four years later, a bust of Wallenberg was displayed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. In 1997, the U.S. Postal Service honored Wallenberg by issuing a stamp featuring his likeness.

In December 2000, Russia officially admitted Soviet forces had wrongfully held Wallenberg at a Soviet prison, according to the New York Times. However, Russia’s announcement did not provide any definitive details about the cause of the diplomat’s death. According to the Times: “It is generally accepted that Wallenberg was executed in 1947 in a Soviet prison.”