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Raoul Wallenberg – Swedish-American Collaboration in Protection of Hungarian Jews

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Intersection at Independence Avenue- Raoul Wallenberg Place SW; Photo by Elin Hofverberg
Intersection at Independence Avenue- Raoul Wallenberg Place SW; Photo by Elin Hofverberg

This upcoming Sunday, January 25, 2019, marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Right here in Washington DC, the Holocaust museum is located at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW.

In fact, there are a number of Raoul Wallenberg plazas, memorials, streets, and esplanades, around the US and the globe (such as the Raoul Wallenbergs torg—town square—in Stockholm or Raoul Wallenberg utca in Budapest).

Who was Raoul Wallenberg and why is there a Holocaust museum located on “his” street?

Background – the US War Refugee Board

In 1944, the U.S. created the War Refugee Board which participated with neutral countries to fund refugee projects and to save Jews from the Holocaust. One of the persons chosen to work in this effort was Raoul Wallenberg, who at the time was employed by a Swedish-Hungarian trading company (Central European Trading Company) under Kalman Lauer. Iver Olsen, the War Refugee Board’s man in Sweden approached Wallenberg and funded his operation in Hungary. The Swedish Foreign Ministry granted him diplomatic status as the legation secretary providing him with diplomatic protection under international law.

Raoul Wallenberg – The Person

Raoul Wallenberg was born in Sweden in 1912 in Stockholm to a wealthy and influential family (the Rockefellers of Scandinavia”). His father had died three months before his birth, so he was raised by his mother Maj and grandfather Gustaf Wallenberg (a Swedish diplomat). He became fluent in English, French, German, and Hungarian, in addition to Swedish.  He received a U.S. education as an architect from the University of Michigan.

Issuance of Swedish Schutz Passport

Wallenberg was not the first Swede to hand out Protective Passports (Skyddspass in Swedish or Schutz- Pass in German) in Hungary. By the time Wallenberg arrived, the Swedish mission was reviewing applications from Hungarians with connections to Sweden, awarding them papers that gave them a right to travel to Sweden and seek Swedish citizenship. Wallenberg expanded the operations, and is remembered for his audacity to issue more of these passports (including counterfeit ones) than what was originally planned. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated August 10, 1944 (shortly after Wallenberg’s arrival in the summer of 1944) from Iver C Olsen with the War Refugee Board in Stockholm, to the United States:

I get the impression, indirectly that the Swedish Foreign Office is somewhat uneasy about Wallenberg’s activities in Budapest, and perhaps feel that he has jumped in with too big a splash… They would prefer of course, to approach the Jewish problem in the finest traditions of European diplomacy, which wouldn’t help too much. On the other hand, there is much to be said for moving about quietly in this type of work. In any case, I feel that Wallenberg is working like hell and doing some good, which is the measure.

In total Wallenberg is believed to have issued more than 10,000 protective passports and saved as many as 100,000 Jews.

Unlike his colleagues, Wallenberg did not stop at issuing passports in response to applications. Survivors have claimed that Wallenberg used many underhand tactics to save any Jew, not just those with a connection to Sweden. These tactics included tricking Nazi officials by approaching Jews on a deportation march and asking, “Who of you has a Swedish protective passport? Raise your hand!”, and then claiming responsibility for any person brave enough to bluff by raising their hand.

Wallenberg and the Swedish legion were not alone in issuing protective passports. In fact, many others had done so before him, including the Swiss Carl Lutz who used to live on 1828 Corcoran Street NW, Washington DC .

Creation of Swedish Houses (Svenskhus) & the International Ghetto

In addition to printing and distributing protective passports, Wallenberg set up “Swedish Houses” which enjoyed the protection as “Swedish territories.” According to reports in The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide, the Swedish houses had the best conditions among all the safe houses (Swiss, Vatican, and Red Cross) in Hungary. Wallenberg has also been reported as being instrumental in creating the International Ghetto in Budapest. With whole houses and not just people being under the protection of the missions of neutral states, Wallenberg managed to also save Jews without protective papers, as anyone inside the house would have been protected. The principle that another state cannot enter embassy premises without permission (as is today laid down in article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations) was accepted already in 1944 by the Hungarian authorities. John Bierman, in his book Righteous Gentile: the story of Raoul Wallenberg, missing hero of the Holocaust, writes of a personal account describing how Wallenberg had stopped the forced entry into one of the Sweden houses by saying: “If you want to take them you will have to shoot me first.” They did not.

Unknown Fate – Wallenberg Disappears

The final fate of Raoul Wallenberg is unknown; he was reportedly last seen on January 17, 1945, as Soviet forces entered Budapest. The final official transmission from Wallenberg to Stockholm was sent on December 23, 1944. What happened to Wallenberg is not clear, but a Swedish-Russian working group in 2000 concluded that Russia had not proved that Wallenberg died of a heart attack (or through execution) in the Lubyanka Prison in 1947 as had been suggested by Soviet officials during the 1950s. When and how he died remains a mystery today, although different theories have been put forward. On October 14, 2016, the Swedish Tax Authority approved an application, made by Martin Gärner (Wallenberg’s trustee, God man (Swedish)) on behalf of Wallenbergs family, to have him declared dead. The official date of death was set to July 31, 1953, five years after the final report of any sight of him alive. The Swedish Parliament has declared the search effort a diplomatic failure.

Honorary Citizenships

Born a Swede, Raul Wallenberg is remembered as a (honorary) citizen of the world. He is an honorary American, honorary Canadian, and honorary Israeli. He was the first individual to ever receive honorary Australian citizenship.

United States Recognizes Raoul Wallenberg

The United States and the War Refugee Board had found a willing participant in Raoul Wallenberg and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Congress has recognized Wallenberg in several ways:

The Honorary Citizenship was introduced by House Representative Tom Lantos who, as luck would have it, was saved by Wallenberg in Hungary in 1944. After escaping from a Nazi labor camp, he sought refuge with a relative living in one of Wallenberg’s “Swedish Houses.”

Further Reading

Library of Congress resources:

The Holocaust Museum also has an extensive online bibliography of works on Raoul Wallenberg and his fate.

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Elin Hofverberg. The author information has been updated to reflect that Elin is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

Comments (3)

  1. realy helpful

  2. Raoul wallenberg organisation have boosted and supported the reforms agendas in Kenya correctional setvices,by building capacity of prison officers on protection of humanity and good practices of the day…..many officers are human rights champions through humane treatment of the incarcersted


    Human rights in Kenya prison services

  3. Please feel free to watch and use the following documentary depicting Raoul Wallenberg’s Honorary Canadian Citizenship.

    There is also a link that’s for the YouTube Channel:

    Raoul Wallenberg – Honorary Canadian Citizen, Saviour of Thousands of Jews in Budapest. on Youtube.

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