Unsung Hero

Something I learnt from my trip that while not everyone was intimately involved in the holocaust the bystanders are not really any more innocent. To say they were too afraid, as may have been the case, only makes the actions of those who did not just set aside all the more extraordinary.

Raoul Wallenberg

  • A Swedish diplomat
  • Located in Nazi occupied Hungary
  • Saved nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews

Swedish legation in Budapest negotiated that Jews with protective passes would be treated as Swedish citizens and did not have to wear the yellow Star of David. The legation requested reinforcements to help give out more passes and received it from the War Refugee Board established by the US when they realised the Swedish were serious.

The WRB and prominent Swedish Jews met to discuss suitable people to lead a mission in Budapest for an extensive rescue operation. It was Koloman Lauer, Raoul Wallenberg’s business partner, who suggested him to lead the operation after the first choice of Folke Bernadotte was disapproved by the Hungarian government. Though he was initially believed too young and inexperienced, Lauer’s belief and Wallenberg’s famous name led to his approval by the end of June 1944, as first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest.

Wallenberg did not use traditional diplomacy instead using unconventional methods of bribes to extortion threats and anything between. It was the speed at which these tactics achieved results that secured him the support of the staff of the legation. He also created passes printed in yellow and blue with the coat of arms of the Three Crowns of Sweden accompanied with stamps and signatures to serve as protective passes that provoked respect despite not having any value according to the international laws. His original permission to issue 1,500 was raised to 4,500 through promises and empty threats but he unofficially issued more than three times as many.

Wallenberg set up 30 houses in the Pest part of the city in which Jews could seek refuge. In front of each door a Swedish flag hung declaring them Swedish territory and the population of the ‘Swedish houses’ rose to 15,000. The other legations in Budapest began to follow his example and a number of diplomats began to set up their own ‘protective houses’.

When the Hungarian Nazi government took control and declared the protective passes no longer valid Wallenberg befriended Baroness Elizabeth Kemeny the wife of the foreign minister and manage to make them valid again. Additionally his ally Szalay was instrumental in helping Wallenberg to stop Echimann’s planned massacre of the largest Budapest ghetto as he sent a note to General Schmidthuber to inform him Wallenburg would make sure the general was held responsible for the massacre if it took place.

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