It was the spring of 1944. Nearly every major Jewish community in Europe had been decimated. Then Adolf Eichmann set his sights on Hungary’s 825,000 Jews, applying against them the same extermination plan the Nazis had been utilizing in other countries.
At the same time, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized European Jewry was about to be completely annihilated. After procrastinating far too long, the president decided the Americans needed to get involved. He established the War Refugee Board (WRB) as part of a clandestine effort through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—a precursor to the CIA—for operatives to try and save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi death camps.
Roosevelt sent an official representative, Iver Olsen, to Stockholm, as the Swedish government was also making serious attempts to save Jews in Hungary. Together with the Swedes, Olsen searched for a person to head up a rescue mission for the Jews of Budapest.
Hungary’s 825,000 Jews had remained safe for most of the war until Hitler discovered that Hungarian officials were holding secret talks with the Americans and the British. As a result, in March 1944, Nazi troops marched on Budapest, and the extermination of Jews began immediately.
Because Sweden was considered a neutral country, Swedish diplomats were still able to travel freely across Europe. Therefore, Olsen looked for a Swedish man willing to walk into the jaws of the Nazi death machine—someone who spoke both Hungarian and German, someone with an independent spirit who would not need much oversight or direction.
He came upon Raoul Wallenberg, a man from a well-known Christian Swedish banking family. Wallenberg had been educated at the University of Michigan and had studied a number of languages and cultures. Interestingly, in 1936, his grandfather had arranged a job for him in Haifa, a city in what then was called Palestine. There, he came into contact for the first time with Jews who had fled the growing Nazi influence in Europe and were now being tyrannized by Arabs resenting their presence in Palestine.
The year 1936 was a particularly tumultuous time for Jews who had come back to live in their ancient homeland. That year marked the beginning of the “great Arab uprising,” triggered by Arab alarm at the large number of Jewish immigrants arriving in the 1930s.
In 1935, over 66,000 Jews had arrived in Israel, mostly from Germany, where conditions had become intolerable with the rise of Nazism. It was also the last large burst of Jewish immigration, as the British severely reduced the number of Jews allowed into the Holy Land because of Arab opposition just as Hitler was coming to power.
Wallenberg witnessed the overwhelming majority of the Arab population, with their superior weaponry, intimidating armies and vast economic potential juxtaposed against the 440,000 men, women and children who made up the Jewish population in the Holy Land in 1936.
Then, back in Sweden during World War II, Wallenberg watched the Jewish people being annihilated by the Nazis. Now he was being offered an assignment to lead a rescue operation of Hungarian Jews who were at the moment being systematically slaughtered. Of great importance were his language skills in both Hungarian and German. Furthermore, he had been to Hungary many times on business.
Nevertheless, some felt Raoul at 32 was too young and inexperienced for this job. However, his business partner, Koloman Lauer, who served on the War Board, felt Wallenberg was the right man—he was quick-thinking, energetic, courageous and empathetic. Lauer believed Wallenberg could be sent under diplomatic cover to lead the rescue operation.
Wallenberg accepted the offer but with unusual conditions. He requested full authority to deal with anyone he wanted, without first clearing the matter with the Swedish ambassador in Budapest, and he said he must have diplomatic couriers outside normal channels.
Wallenberg’s memo concerning these things was so unusual that the matter was referred all the way up to the Swedish prime minister, who consulted with King Gustav V before informing Wallenberg that his conditions had been accepted.
By now it was July 1944. In the previous three months, the infamous Eichmann, who managed the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in East Europe, had already deported 400,000 Hungarian Jews by freight train to Auschwitz. Only 230,000 Jews were left in the country, including 200,000 in Budapest, and Eichmann had a plan in motion to end all plans: to deport all of the remaining Hungarian Jews in 24 hours!
For reasons only to be speculated, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler ordered Eichmann to temporarily halt the deportations.
Enter Wallenberg. There was nothing conventional about his methods. He immediately opened an office in Budapest and “hired” 400 Jewish volunteers to run it. He told them to take off the yellow Star of David that marked them as Jews, as they now had Swedish diplomatic protection.
Printing Swedish Passports
After quickly distributing a few hundred genuine Swedish passports, Wallenberg and his staff’s next task was to design a homemade Swedish “protective passport.” Wallenberg had previously learned that the German and Hungarian bureaucracies had a weakness for external symbolism. So he had the passports attractively printed in blue and yellow (Sweden’s national colors) with the Three Crowns coat of arms in the middle, and he furnished them with the appropriate stamps and signatures. Wallenberg’s protective passports (called Schutzpasses) had no value whatsoever under international law, but they commanded the respect of those he wished to influence.
With permission from no one, he announced that the Schutzpasses granted the holder immunity from deportation to the death camps. He persuaded the Hungarian authorities to give him permission to issue 4,500, and through promises and empty threats to the Hungarian foreign ministry, Wallenberg managed to issue many thousands of these Schutzpasses indiscriminately.