Raoul Wallenberg – Diplomat, businessman & humanitarian

Raoul Wallenberg was born in Lidingö, Stockholm in August 1912. Despite being born into one of Sweden’s most prominent families consisting of leading bankers, diplomats and statesmen, Raoul turned his back on a life of privileges and instead paid the ultimate sacrifice by saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, inspiring the world to this day with his bravery and moral courage.

Although the plan was for Raoul to follow other prominent members of his family and go into banking, he was more interested in architecture and trade. In 1931, he went to study architecture at the University of Michigan in the US, where he also studied English, German and French.

On returning to Sweden in 1935, he found that his US degree did not qualify him to work as an architect. Between 1935 and 1936, Raoul was employed at a branch office of the Holland Bank in Haifa, present-day Israel. During this time, he first met Jews who had fled Hitler’s Germany. Their stories moved him deeply.

Back in Stockholm, he obtained a job at the Central European Trading Company, an import-export company with operations in Stockholm and central Europe, owned by Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew. Raoul’s linguistic skills, and the fact that he could travel freely around Europe, made him the perfect business partner. It was not long before he was a major shareholder of the firm. His travels to Nazi-occupied France and to Germany soon taught him how German bureaucracy worked – knowledge that would prove highly valuable.

Raoul was also a talented actor, which was a big help in his clashes with the Nazis. He could be calm, humorous and warm, or aggressive and intimidating. He could flatter and bribe one occasion, and shout and threaten on another. The Nazis were impressed by him and usually gave in to his demands. Another important factor was his Swedish diplomatic status, which the Germans did not dare to violate.

As a diplomat and businessman, Raoul was appointed legation secretary of the Swedish diplomatic mission in Budapest in June 1944. His job was to launch a rescue operation for Jews, and he became head of a special department. 

The first thing Raoul did was to design a protective Swedish passport. German and Hungarian bureaucrats had a weakness for symbology, so he had the passports printed in blue and yellow with the Swedish coat of arms in the centre. He furnished the passports with appropriate stamps and signatures. Raoul managed to convince the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to approve 4,500 protective passports. In reality, he issued three times as many. Towards the end of the war, when conditions were desperate, Raoul issued a simplified version of his protective passport that bore only his signature. In the prevailing chaos, even this worked.

By issuing protective Swedish passports and renting buildings, so called ‘Swedish houses’ such as the “Swedish Library” and “Swedish Research Institute” where Jews could seek shelter, he saved tens of thousands of lives.

In January 1945 however, the Russians arrived in Budapest and Raoul was imprisoned. Russia claims he died in a Soviet prison on July 17, 1947. However, many witness reports suggest he may have been alive much later. Despite many attempts over the decades since then to understand what happened, his fate remains an intriguing mystery.

Per Anger, also a member of the Swedish Legation who died in 2002, last saw Raoul on January 10, 1945, when he urged him to seek safety. Raoul replied, ‘To me there’s no other choice. I’ve accepted this assignment and I could never return to Stockholm without the knowledge that I’d done everything in human power to save as many Jews as possible.’

The TIDLÖS team salutes the forgotten hero, Raoul Wallenberg, who risked and eventually lost his life whilst saving tens of thousands of Jews and whose achievements are a reminder of the continuing need to fight evil.