The Talmud states: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed the whole world. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the whole world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a). There’s so much wisdom in this saying, which also resonates with history. The Nazis did everything in their power to destroy the whole Jewish race while Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, did everything he could to save them. He worked relentlessly to save 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.
Wallenberg’s own life story contains as much triumph as it does tragedy. By the time Wallenberg, only 31 years old, arrived in Budapest 437,000 Jews living outside the city had already been deported to Auschwitz. He could do nothing to save their lives. But there were aproximately 230,000 Jews left in Budapest, all of whom Adolf Eichamann, who was then stationed in the capital, planned to send as efficiently as possible to their deaths. The preparations of the death machine had already begun. Most of the Jews in Budapest had already been herded by the Nazis and their Fascist, Arrow Cross collaborators, into a Jewish Ghetto. They were deprived of any means of subsistence and living in terror. Every day they were subject to the Nazi actions to deport them to concentration camps as well as at the mercy of mob pogroms encouraged by the Arrow Cross.
In this humanitarian crisis, where time was of the essence, Wallenberg proved to be both flexible and resourceful. He didn’t limit himself to traditional, slow diplomatic measures to save Budapest’s Jewish community. Using his own funds, he cajoled and bribed members of the Hungarian Fascist party in power, the Arrow Cross, as well as German officials in Budapest in order to protect the lives 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Responding promptly to every call for help, he issued tens of thousands of official-looking Swedish Embassy protection papers to the desperate Jews.
Kati Marton’s beautifully written biography, Wallenberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Who Saved the Jews of Budapest (New York: Arcade Publishing, Centenary Edition, 2011), narrates the life of this courageous and altruistic man. It also explores the still unsolved mystery of his death while imprisoned in the Soviet Union. Having managed to save tens of thousands of innocent lives and to survive WWII and the Nazi terror in occupied Hungary, in an ultimate irony of fate, Wallenberg perished at the hands of the Allies. He was caught in the lethal web of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Yet he managed to accomplish so much in such a short period of time.
By the time he reached Hungary in his early thirties, Raoul Wallenberg had already lived a lifetime. He had travelled the world and gained enormous life experience. Born in an affluent and established family of Swedish bankers and industrialists, Wallenberg preferred to travel and learn about different cultures rather than devote himself to making money. Although he probably could have selected any university in Europe, he chose to study at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, eager to learn more about the U.S. He also travelled to Haifa, Palestine. Through family connections he met Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who was the Director of a Swedish Import and Export Company, the Mid-European Trading Company. Within a few months, the young man impressed Lauer so much with his competence and efficiency, that he became a joint partner in this enterprise. Given the Lauer’s family and business ties to Hungary, Wallenberg traveled to Budapest, following closely the political situation there. He was especially touched—and alarmed–by the fate of the Jews.
Wallenberg also took trips to Vichy France and Nazi Germany and learned a lot about the Fascist regimes and how their bureaucracy and killing machine operated. His observations that the Nazi regime functioned through a mixture of need for respectability and natural authority served him well when he embarked on the dangerous mission of saving Budapest’s Jews. He bribed the corruptible officials with cigars, alcohol or food—a strategy that often worked in a time of severe food shortages—while at the same time issuing official-looking passports and protective orders, couched in formal language, under the auspices of the Swedish Embassy and government. At one point he even faced the “Engineer of death”—Adolf Eichmann himself—in a showdown of wills in which Eichmann backed down and Wallenberg managed to save hundreds of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis.
On January 17, 1945, following the Ally victory and Budapest’s encirclement by the Soviet army, Wallenberg and his chauffeur went, under Soviet military escort, to meet with a high-ranking Russian general. Wallenberg hasn’t been heard from ever since. Marton’s book describes that several eyewitnesses claim they have seen him in the Lyubianka and, later, in several Gulags well into the 1970’s. But, ultimately, this information is highly speculative. The evidence seems to point to the fact that Raoul Wallenberg perished in 1947 at the hands of the NKVD. The heroic man who saved countless lives from the Nazis could not be saved himself from the cold injustice of the totalitarian killing machine.