The Man Who Saved Budapest’s Jews
The myth of World War II goes like this: the Allies were good, they won, and the Jews who survived were saved from Hitler by the Allies’ virtuous war efforts. The reality goes more like this: the Allies and most neutral countries waited, and they waited, and they waited as the Jews—to say nothing of the Slavs, Russians, disabled, dissidents, homosexuals, and Romani—were persecuted and then exterminated by the Nazis.
Some nations did better than others. Denmark sent nearly all of its Jews away in time, while France and Poland mostly let their populations die. In 1939, the U.S. House voted down a bill that would have brought 20,000 Jewish children into the country.
But the FDR administration’s War Refugee Board was a success. Mostly funded by Jewish groups, this was a Hail Mary pass that needed a man in the field to help Jews escape—a task that fell to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman with no previous diplomatic experience. Without the bureaucratic brilliance of his team, which confidently handed out fake Swedish passports that protected Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, some 100,000 Budapest Jews would not have survived the war.
Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg has written the most comprehensive biography of her countryman Wallenberg that we are ever likely to get. This is also the story of the mass bystander effect that doomed 6 million Jews. Also told here is the end of World War II, the dawn of the Cold War, and the story of how a hero of one war got caught in the slow machinery of the next.
Carlberg divides her book into three sections. The first is a bio of Wallenberg up until he left for Budapest. His status as one of the great saviors of World War II is often seen as inexplicable, but Carlberg deftly proves that Wallenberg was preparing for his eventual diplomatic role long before a Hungarian business associate suggested his name for the job.
His father, Raoul Gustaf, died before he was born, but the name Wallenberg was well known in Sweden. Wallenberg’s grandfather had great plans for him. His father’s cousins excelled in banking and business—and, it turns out, had some dealings with the Nazis and the West. Raoul had studied architecture in America and bounced from South Africa to Palestine in different trades.
He was charismatic, funny, and amazingly driven when he wanted to be. This man who spent more than a decade searching for the right profession had all along been gathering cosmopolitan talents for his great humanitarian task. From his language skills to his contacts around the world, from his skillful bureaucratic wheedling to his knowing when to threaten and when to sweet-talk, and from his simply having traveled enough to appreciate the humanity inherent in a wide range of peoples, he was the right man.
The book’s second section, in which Carlberg recounts the six-month rescue effort, is its most thrilling but also the most familiar to students of Wallenberg. Carlberg isn’t as interested in the most cinematic of Wallenberg’s exploits as other biographers have been. (One popular story has him standing on top of a train car handing passports, or even food, to Jews; another, more doubtful one has him dining with Adolf Eichmann.) But she sprinkles in short, first-person highlights from her research, her travels to Budapest and Moscow, and her interactions with important people such as Wallenberg’s little sister to liven up the larger historical picture.
When Carlberg relates the daring operation, Wallenberg is not always seen in close-ups but often in wide shots along with a whole cast and historical setting. Carlberg does a fantastic job of showing the fluid motivations and loyalties of the Hungarians, Germans, and Swedes who were the leads in this drama. By devoting pages to men such as Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy, whose nation passed early anti-Semitic laws but who was horrified by the extermination campaign, and Pál Szalai, who turned from a member of Arrow Cross (Hungary’s National Socialists) into a dissident police officer and trusted ally of Wallenberg, Carlberg doesn’t just make distant, dignified hero Wallenberg real. She brings World War II out of sepia and into bloody color where it belongs.
The Budapest section is the story of bureaucracy used to save lives. It’s tempting to wonder whether a few more such men and a few more plans that involved cleverness, not bombing campaigns, might have done a better job protecting Hitler’s most vulnerable victims than the Allies did. At minimum the Allies had to get there, and before they did, Wallenbergs of all kinds could have been there to arrange for the protection and escape of Jews. It happened to some extent in a few cities. But on the large scale, it was just Wallenberg and just Budapest.
The final section is a bureaucratic horror story—a story of the world failing Wallenberg, just as it had failed the desperate victims of the Nazis. After the Soviets seized Budapest, Wallenberg went willingly into the Soviet Union because he had grand plans for helping Soviet-occupied Budapest after the war was over. Wallenberg had been organizing food distribution and impromptu hospitals. He wanted to work with the Russians, to start a firm to help people get back on their feet and to reunite refugee families.
Instead, he was arrested in 1945 by the Soviet counterintelligence organization SMERSH on Stalin’s orders. Though there is no evidence that Wallenberg knew about it, numerous spies flitted on the edge of his circles in Stockholm and Budapest, and the Refugee Board had connections to the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Wallenberg dealt with anyone in Budapest who could further the cause—be they Arrow Cross, dissident Hungarian, Nazi, or Soviet. More than a few of the 350 people who eventually worked under him in Budapest had hidden loyalties. A Russian interpreter who had worked at the office and turned out to be a Soviet spy may have been the rat who reported Wallenberg. Most likely, Wallenberg simply had no idea how suspicious the paranoid Josef Stalin found a man funded by American and Jewish money—someone willing to shake anyone’s hand, as long as it furthered the goal of saving the Jews under his protection. (Stalin would have his own anti-Jewish purges later.) And Wallenberg had family associations in banking, in backroom diplomacy, and in investments that had, for a while, sold ball bearings to the Germans. So much circumstantial evidence existed to make him seem a spy that his arrest feels inevitable.
A single Soviet document that may or may not be from 1947—it was released a decade later—says he died of a heart attack that year. After more than two years at the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, Wallenberg might have been shot. Carlberg seems to think he may have been poisoned, perhaps during a seemingly normal medical examination like the ones given by Grigory Mairanovsky—aka Doctor Death, “the head of Laboratory X, which was practically located around the corner from the Lubyanka. … for the majority of his victim’s, ‘heart attack’ was given as the cause of death,” she writes.
Carlberg mostly deflates the hopes raised by unreliable sources who claimed to have proof that Wallenberg was alive in the gulags or in a mental hospital well into the ’70s or ’80s. She does agree, however, that some doubt lingers over the Soviets’ official date of death: July 17, 1947. Wallenberg’s driver and his cellmate were interrogated on the same night as an unnamed “prisoner number 7” six days after Wallenberg supposedly died. All three were then moved from the interrogation room together. Carlberg writes that “those responsible for the archives of the Russian security service (FSB) assume that this prisoner number seven was, ‘in all likelihood,’ Raoul Wallenberg, thereby indicating that he may not have died on July 17.”
They don’t know, though. No one seems to. Wallenberg would be 104 by now, and the Swedish Tax Authority plans to declare him legally dead if he does not appear by October.
Wallenberg became a truly international name only after Rep. Tom Lantos—who was saved along with his wife by Wallenberg—and then the Central Intelligence Agency began heavily pushing his story as anti-Soviet propaganda. They funded journalists and projects that trumpeted Wallenberg. Carlberg quotes a CIA telegram from 1980, which said “The Raoul Wallenberg case continues to be useful in order to highlight Soviet crimes against humanity.”
But the CIA could do nothing except raise awareness. A timid, neutral Sweden and a Soviet-controlled Hungary meant that Wallenberg was fatally entangled in diplomatic difficulties, which Carlberg exhaustively relates. In spite of pressure from Wallenberg’s family, it was not until the ’50s that Sweden even officially demanded his return. Meetings for years practically involved the Swedish ambassador to the USSR winking at the Soviets and saying, “Boy, this Wallenberg fellow must be dead in Hungary somewhere, but his darn family keeps harping on it.” He was sure Wallenberg was dead—and once he wasn’t, it was too late. Besides, there were Swedish-Soviet relations to think of.
This and myriad other errors, bad timing, and misunderstandings made fetching Wallenberg seem forever feasible, yet always out of reach of his family. It was recently revealed that Wallenberg’s mother and stepfather, elderly and exhausted, crushed never to have found their son, committed suicide two days apart in the 1970s. Their children dutifully picked up the bur-den and searched for their half-brother into the new millennium.
Carlberg suggests that Soviet fears of America’s Marshall Plan—intended to check the spread of communism in Europe—could have been what doomed Wallenberg. Wallenberg’s hopes to help Budapest were perhaps interpreted in a darker fashion as the Marshall Plan loomed. He may have been killed on Stalin’s orders—though no documentation exists—in the days of the Truman Doctrine and stonewalled talks with the West. Wallenberg’s optimistic, cosmopolitan humanitarianism had no place in the Cold War’s binaries, just as it had been an anomaly amid the abattoir of World War II.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a reporter for Playboy.com.