World War II was almost over. By mid- 5704/1944, only one substantial community of Jews still survived in the whole of Europe – the 230,000 Jews left in Budapest after Eichmann had deported 437,402 Jews from the outlying districts of Hungary to death camps. On July 7th, the Hungarian leader, Miklos Horthy, finally halted the deportations although Eichmann obstinately deported 1,500 more prominent Jews behind Horthy’s back, ten days later.
However, the cessation of deportations threatened to be only a temporary reprieve. Budapest’s Jews had already been ordered to move into 2,000 apartment buildings marked with Magen Davids.
Now, at the eleventh hour, an international effort was being made to save this last remnant of the European Jewry. A Stockholm representative of America’s belatedly established War Refugee Board (WRB) put together a committee of prominent Swedish Jews who decided to send a suitable Swede to Budapest on a rescue mission. The person chosen for the job was Raoul Wallenberg. Raoul Wallenberg’s father, Raoul Oscar, an officer in the Swedish navy, died three months before Raoul was born on August 4th, 5672/1912. The cousins of young Raoul were Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, two of Sweden’s most famous bankers and industrialists.
Wallenberg’s original goal was to be an architect and earned a degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, finishing the four-and-a-half-year course a year early. However, wanting the young man to perpetuate the family’s banking tradition, Gustav Wallenberg, his grandfather, sent him to work in a bank in British Mandate Palestine. It was in a kosher boarding house in Haifa that Wallenberg first encountered young Jews who had fled for their lives from Hitler’s Germany. Their reports of Nazi persecutions profoundly affected him.
Also, Wallenberg was proud of what he considered a drop of Jewish blood in his veins as his great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, named Benedicks, had served as financial advisor to King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden.
Wallenberg’s connection with Jews deepened when he returned to Sweden, a few months later, to work for Koloman Lauer, a Jewish Hungarian refugee, who was the director of a Swedish firm dealing in specialty foods. Lauer needed someone, with freedom of movement and excellent language skills, to travel through Nazi-occupied territories on his behalf. Eight months later, Wallenberg became a partner and the international director of Lauer’s Central-European Trading Company.
Lauer happened to be the Hungarian expert of the WRB’s Swedish committee and recommended Wallenberg – a quick-thinker, resourceful, dynamic, courageous and compassionate – as the perfect person to be sent to save Jews. At the end of June 5704/1944, Wallenberg was duly appointed secretary of the Swedish legation in Budapest.
Hating protocol and red tape, Wallenberg drew up a nine-point list of minimal demands that included having a free hand to use any methods he saw fit, including bribery, the empowerment to deal directly with Sweden’s Prime Minister, and authorization to give Jews holding protective passes asylum in the legation’s buildings.
Wallenberg’s unusual demands went all the way up to the Swedish Prime Minister and king and were granted approval.
WALLENBERG TO THE RESCUE
On July 6th, Wallenberg flew to Berlin and then took a train to Budapest. It was packed with German troops and he spent the whole journey in the corridor sitting on his rucksack. The train that brought him into Budapest on July 9th may well have crossed paths en route with a train of 29 sealed cattle cars bearing the last batch of Jews to Auschwitz.
Wallenberg now headed the department responsible for helping Jews. He was continuing some initiatives already begun by the head of the Swedish legation in Budapest, Minister Carl Ivar Danielsson and his particularly brave secretary, Per Anger, who began issuing the first batch of Swedish protective passes to Jews. Also, the head of the Red Cross in Hungary, Valdemar Langlet, helped the Swedish legation’s rescue efforts by renting buildings, affixing signs, such as “The Swedish Library” and “The Swedish Research Institute” on their doors, and then hiding Jews in them.
Wallenberg’s strategy was not to attempt to send Jews out of Hungary but to protect Budapest Jews by issuing them with new protective passes (schutzpaesse). Knowing that the Germans and Hungarians had a weakness for flashy symbols, Wallenberg printed his passes in impressive yellow and blue, embellished them with the three crowns of Sweden and covered them with stamps and signatures. Although these flashy passes had no international standing whatsoever, they were convincing evidence that the bearers were under the protection of the leading neutral power in Europe. An extra perk was that Jews with his passes did not have to wear the regulated yellow star.
At first, Wallenberg was permitted to issue 1,500 passes which later increased to 4,500. In fact, he issued three times that number. Long lines of Jews formed outside the Swedish Embassy where Wallenberg had a staff of 250 Jews working in shifts, and Wallenberg also hired “distributors” to provide Jews with papers. This was sometimes risky.
“It often became a matter of giving a document to anyone who looked Jewish,” distributor Joseph Kovacs reported after the war. “Once, I passed a document to someone I was absolutely sure was Jewish. Much to my shock, he turned out to be a Nyilas (Arrow Cross) policeman. He pulled out his gun to shoot me when, miraculously, a woman screamed from out of a window. He turned around to look and I took to my heels like an Olympic runner.”
“A forged passport was better than no document at all,” Kovacs recalled, “because it could become a mighty instrument in preventing deportation and death.”
Inspired by Hungary’s example, diplomats from other countries also began saving Jews. Consul Carl Lutz of Switzerland issued emigration certificates to even more Jews than Wallenberg. Posing as a Spanish diplomat, an Italian businessman, Giorgia Perlasca, issued Spanish visas to Jewish families whose ancestors had fled from Spain, four and a half centuries earlier. The papal nunciature in Budapest, too, began issuing thousands of fake baptismal certificates and safe-conduct passes.
FALSE HOPE Within three months, the peril of Budapest’s Jews seemed to have passed. On August 30th, the German government ordered Eichmann and his professional murderers to leave and a day later, Russian forces occupied Bucharest, the capital of neighboring Romania. Romania left the Nazi Axis and joined forces with Russia and, before long, Wallenberg considered his mission almost complete.
“I am going to do everything humanly possible to get home soon,” he wrote to his partner, Lauer, on September 29th, “but you must understand that a big organization cannot be wound up easily.”
“The Russian advance has increased the hope of the Jews that their unfortunate plight will soon be ended,” he added, two weeks later. “Many of their own accord have already ceased wearing the Star of David. Their fear that the Germans might, at the last moment, carry out a pogrom still remains, however, despite the fact that there are no signs that any such happening will occur.” Then something occurred that threw the Budapest Jews back into the maelstrom of the Holocaust.
Realizing that the war was lost, Horthy sent a special emissary to Moscow to sue for peace and on Sunday morning, October 15th, he publicly broadcast that the war was over for Hungary.
“This was the memorable moment that we Jews had been awaiting so eagerly during the terrible months when we expected to be deported at any time,” wrote Jewish activist, Laszlo Szamosi. “At first it seemed incredible that this meant our deliverance, our freedom. Hardly could we comprehend that we could go out into the street and cast off our yellow stars, that we could go out and look for our relatives. The ecstasy of the people living in our star-marked house was beyond description.”
But Szamosi soon discovered that something had gone wrong.
“Suddenly a new voice could be heard on the air, which started announcing ceaselessly the names of well-known Arrow Cross men,” he recorded. “It now became clear that the Arrow Cross mob, armed by the Germans, was seizing power. The Germans were streaming back into the city. They occupied the radio station with a few rifle shots and with that the Arrow Cross government came into being and all our hopes were cruelly dashed.”
Nazi spies had informed Germany of Horthy’s peace plan all along and were ready to spike his plans with their well-planned Operation Panzerfaust. Horthy was summarily fired and replaced by Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the rabidly anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party. The very next day, Eichmann returned to Budapest in triumph.
“You see I am back,” he gloated to a small group of Jewish leaders. “Our arm is still long enough to reach you.”
“During the first night of the takeover,” Wallenberg recorded, “numerous arrests and many pogroms took place and between a hundred and two hundred people are believed to have been killed. Moreover, a number of Jewish houses were emptied of their occupants by members of the Arrow Cross…some hundred have disappeared.” On October 20th, thousands of Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 were given one hour to get food for a three-day march. Fifty thousand recruits were marched off to the outskirts of Budapest to dig trenches and throw up earthworks in preparation against the imminent Russian offensive. Hundreds died from the freezing cold and brutality.
THE SECOND STALINGRAD
About a week later, brown Soviet T-34 tanks arrived in the Eastern suburbs of Budapest. German and Hungarian troops raced to the defense in city trams. Once again, it seemed that salvation was imminent. However, this was not to be. Hitler was determined to defend Budapest to the death because it was the gateway to Vienna and Southern Bavaria and, beyond it, lay the Axis’ only remaining crude oil wells in Southern Hungary. About 70,000 German and Hungarian soldiers would defend the city to the bitter end.
“Die Schwarzen Raben fliegen aus Stalingrad,” “The black ravens (Russians) are coming from Stalingrad,” Russian propaganda flyers warned, reminding the Germans that they would suffer the same fate as their Stalingrad comrades who were starved, bombed and frozen to defeat in 5702/1942. But for some inexplicable reason, the Nazi soldiers remained loyal to their murderous overlord. They were willing to die for a lost cause.
In the meantime, Eichmann had dreamt up a new way to dispose of Budapest’s Jews. “The Jews of Budapest will now be deported, this time on foot,” he told his staff. “We need vehicles for other purposes. Now we are going to do the work briskly and efficiently. All right?”
This is when the infamous Death Marches began.