The 100th birthday of Raoul Wallenberg garnered numerous celebrations and commemorations, for the famed Holocaust hero who helped save the lives of 100,000 Jews. It also brought up old questions.
Not much is known about the ultimate fate of Wallenberg, who disappeared in Russia in 1945. It’s widely accepted that he was arrested by Russian police, and authorities there maintain he died in a cell in 1947. However, more and more researchers have compiled detailed accounts of alternative histories, with some theories stating Wallenberg lived decades longer than popular belief.
Wallenberg was born near Stockholm on August 4, 1912, to a wealthy banking family. He studied architecture both in Sweden and in the states, but took a job at a Holland Bank branch in Israel as a young man. Shortly after, he began work with a Hungarian Jew at an import and export company in Stockholm.
In 1938, Wallenberg found himself acting as representative for his colleague, who was having increasing difficulty returning to his home country due to application of the Nuremberg Race Laws, regulations infringing on the movements of the Jewish community. Wallenberg slowly learned to speak Hungarian, and in time became a frequent traveler to Budapest, France and Germany.
In 1944, news of anti-Semitism and ghettoization in Hungary drew large-scale awareness in the US. President Franklin Roosevelt turned to the War Refugee Board to see if something could be done to turn the tide of anti-Jewish sentiment. The WRB needed a liaison that spoke Hungarian and could move frequently across European borders without raising suspicions. Raoul Wallenberg was a perfect candidate.
At that point, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already been deported to labor camps. Wallenberg was appointed to lead a mission aimed at moving as many Jews as possible out of the country, before conditions deteriorated further. To that end, Wallenberg, now 32, began issuing protective passports that falsely named Jewish residents as Swedish expatriates waiting to return home, systematically blocking their deportation to the camps. Wallenberg set up fake diplomatic buildings, renting sites and putting up signage deeming the spots as Swedish libraries or research institutes. There, he housed thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Eventually, officials grew suspicious of Wallenberg. He began sleeping in a different house each night to avoid capture. Though he evaded seizure for months, luck finally ran out in January 1945, when Wallenberg was called to meet with Soviet commander Rodion Malinovsky amid fears he was spying for the Americans. He was never heard from again.
August 2012 would have been Wallenberg’s centennial birthday. As such, governments in Europe, the US and beyond formed lectures, events and honorary ceremonies to remember the man who saved so many Hungarian Jews, despite the fact he was neither Hungarian nor Jewish.
Though history has been able to metaphorically immortalize him, a shroud of mystery still lingers. Wallenberg’s body was never recovered and no one knows for sure what ultimately happened to him. For many, it is an unfitting end for the man often called The Hero Without a Grave.
In the ‘90s, a team of researchers formed the Swedish-Russian Working Group for Determining the Fate of Raoul Wallenberg. Though leads surfaced pointing to new evidence, the research eventually ran dry. Members pointed to bureaucratic tape and a hesitancy by governments to reopen old wounds. Still, the global community hasn’t given up. In June 2012, the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation issued a $500,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of the lost champion.
Though the last days of his life may forever remain a mystery, Wallenberg is remembered through vast statues, memorials and street signs that bear his name. He is also remembered through the many lives he helped to save. Hungary is attributed with the largest Jewish survival rate of World War II, a fact analysts say is due in no small part to Wallenberg’s efforts.