Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

January 17: The Arrest of Raoul Wallenberg


By Cheyanne Perkins

Today marks the 71st anniversary of the arrest of Raoul Wallenberg.  For some, his name may not be well-known, but for thousands of Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust he meant the difference between life and death.

Wallenberg was born in Sweden in 1912.  As an adult, after attending school in America, he went into the banking industry.  It was through his business travels that he learned about Nazi policies, and what their rule meant for European Jews.  He did not like what he learned, and decided to take action. 

By the 1940s, Hungary was home to the largest remaining population of Jews on the continent, since the Nazi push into that country did not begin in earnest until 1944.  At the same time, the United States had just established the War Refugee Board, the purpose of which was to rescue from Europe as many Jewish people as it could.  In partnership with the War Refugee Board, Raoul Wallenberg agreed to take part in a plan to provide Swedish papers to Jews in Hungary, which would show that they had been granted permission to go to Sweden.  These papers would ensure the legal protection of the bearer.

Wallenberg arrived in Hungary in July 1944.  The only Jewish citizens left in the country at that point lived within the city of Budapest; those living elsewhere had already been taken by the Nazis.  Wallenberg wasted no time in issuing Swedish passports to as many people as he could.  He also tried to establish safe areas around the city, including a soup kitchen and two hospitals, where he and his team could provide protection and necessities to Jews.  Soon, Wallenberg led a staff of about 340 employees, and together they faced down the evil consuming the city.

By the end of the year, a Nazi-based government, the Arrow Cross, had taken power in Hungary, and actions against Jewish citizens grew even more severe.  Thousands were ordered on a death march, where countless people died. Determined to save as many people as possible from this horrible fate, Wallenberg followed their path, supplying passports, food, water, and clothes. 

By the beginning of 1945, at least 20,000 people had been provided with papers by Raoul Wallenberg.  His last triumph came with the rescue of the prisoners trapped within the ghetto in Budapest.  The ghetto held 115,000 people, and was scheduled to be liquidated by the Nazis that January.  It was only through his efforts that the ghetto was not liquidated as planned.

Raoul Wallenberg was certainly an enemy of the Nazi regime.  His fate was to be decided, however, by the Russians.  The Swedish rescuer was last seen in public on January 17th, 1945, on his way to a meeting with a Soviet official.  In February, his family was informed that he would soon return to Sweden, but he never arrived.  Searches continued for Wallenberg, and rumors about his fate would swirl for decades, but nothing conclusive has ever been discovered.  It is possible that Wallenberg was thought to be an American spy by the Soviets.

In honor of his heroism, Raoul Wallenberg was awarded the designation “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 1963.  He has also been granted honorary citizenship by the United States and Israel, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. stands on Raoul Wallenberg Place.  Of the 120,000 Jewish inhabitants of Budapest who survived the Holocaust, it is said that 100,000 were saved by the work of Raoul Wallenberg.  He is truly an example of what it means to be an Upstander, and his story so clearly exemplifies the difference one person can make within this world.

The above photograph of Raoul Wallenberg has been reprinted from Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: holocaust hungary righteous among the nations sweden upstander war refugee board yad vashem thgc raoul wallenberg


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