70 years: Raoul Wallenberg’s abduction by the Russians on January 17, 1945

Reflections on the person behind the hero, and his fate – as told by his niece, Louise von Dardel.

Louise von Dardel (photo credit: BO PERSSON)
Louise von Dardel
(photo credit: BO PERSSON)
My uncle Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, was abducted by the Russians on January 17, 1945, and immediately incarcerated in a KGB jail in Moscow. Probably not a single day has gone by that our family has not thought of him since, and we have done all we could to bring him home.
The 70th anniversary of his separation from us leads me to reflect, and some of this I would like to share.
Because of his exceptional deeds in Hungary, Raoul is a historical figure, and history is collective memory. Yad Vashem has a slogan: “Remembering the past – shaping the future.” For myself as well, history is understanding the essence of past events in order to be able to learn for the future.
Specifically, in the case of Raoul, I ask: How do we remember a great hero? Is it only to “honor,” or to also provide motivation for positive action? Throughout the past decades, my uncle was often recognized at high-level state ceremonies and made an honorary citizen of various countries. Streets, monuments and schools have been named after him, stamps have been issued by various countries. He is the best-known rescuer of Jews; many who remember him are descendants of those he rescued, and thus received the gift of life.
Some also remember him as a symbol of Communist terror, which swallowed tens of millions of lives.
For me, there are two main questions: “What happened to Raoul Wallenberg after he fell into the hands of the Russians?” and “What can we learn from him, and how can we be inspired to carry on his work and keep his spirit alive?” More information is required about his fate and why he was not rescued from the Russians. To do so, we need to better understand all the complex forces of history in the postwar period.
Raoul was born into a privileged family: the wealthy and very powerful banking and industrial Wallenbergs of Sweden.
His father, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, died before he was born and his maternal grandfather passed away a few months after his birth. In his formative years he was brought up by two grieving widows, his mother and grandmother, both dressed in black. Some may feel like victims under such circumstances, but Raoul learned compassion for the suffering of others.
Later his mother, Maj, my grandmother, married Fredrik von Dardel, an aristocrat and nobleman. Subsequently, Raoul’s siblings were born – my father, Guy, and aunt Nina.
Instead of becoming a banker in the Wallenberg enterprise, Raoul selected architecture for his university studies, due to his imagination, pragmatism and passion for creating harmony. Despite America’s Great Depression, he chose to study at the University of Michigan. He witnessed many personal tragedies and also perceived the coming of economic recovery.
During a vacation, he worked at a world’s fair and experienced America by hitchhiking all the way to Mexico. He appreciated the country’s vastness and beauty; he saw that America could envision and accomplish great things, almost without limits and often in totally unconventional ways. This made a great impression on Raoul, and fundamentally influenced his thinking.
He enjoyed his studies, nature, travel, meeting girls, interesting discussions, reading, going to movies, dinners and many of the nice things life has to offer. Despite his family background, he was modest and loved to be helpful to people.
Following the wishes of his banking family, on his way back to Sweden he worked for a short time in various countries in order to gain banking experience.
One of his places of work was a bank in Haifa, where he met many Jews who had recently escaped from Nazi Germany. That may well be one of the reasons he felt so much empathy for the abandoned Jews of Europe.
The global economic crisis had already reached Sweden when he returned to Stockholm. The wealthy Wallenberg family seemed unable to help him find work. Raoul found a job with a Hungarian Jew, Kalman Lauer, in Stockholm; it was an import-export company dealing with Hungarian food items.
He was a creative person in the best sense of that word, both in architecture and in other areas of life. This took courage, as a truly creative person is often scorned for being different. Raoul was not an eccentric or one-dimensional person, yet he was by no means a conformist.
He was in many ways a rugged individual, skillfully combining vision and inventiveness with pragmatism.
He was also very solution-oriented. For example, he designed a floating swimming pool next to the royal palace for a Stockholm architectural competition.
During much of World War II, Raoul lived in neutral Sweden, in peaceful Stockholm. Most of his friends were leading normal lives while he was concerned about the war; he kept up with events and even had a map on which he noted the main battles. He was quite bright, but even more importantly, he had a sensitive and caring heart. When he heard about the concentration camps, he believed it was indeed happening – and tried to convince his friends that this horror was a reality in modern Europe.
In January 1944, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the American War Refugee Board. This happened mainly due to activism by the Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson)-led rescue group in America, as well as the help of US secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., a Jew who pressured Roosevelt.
With the support of numerous senators, congressmen and even first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the “Bergson Group” persistently lobbied the Roosevelt administration to help the Jews of Europe.
One day, Raoul was asked by a Stockholm representative of the American War Refugee Board if he would be willing to help rescue Jews in Budapest. He did not speak Hungarian, had never lived there and certainly had no experience with such lifesaving work.
He was fully aware of the danger of his mission, yet he wanted a life filled with deep meaning – one worth living.
Ultimately he found that in Budapest, where he was totally energized by the immense meaning of his rescue work.
Raoul was given a diplomatic passport and an office at the Swedish Embassy in Budapest. Most vitally, the Swedish king agreed that Raoul would be independent and not subject to the diplomatic rules of the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
This was critical to his mission’s success.
Raoul left for Budapest in a hurry and with great passion, and arrived on July 9, 1944. He was a pragmatist, yet like many idealists and youthful people, didn’t know the concept of impossible.
This helped him face almost insurmountable odds.
Raoul's mission to Budapest became possible for many reasons.
After the total defeat of the German army at Stalingrad in early February 1943, it became clear the tables had been turned on the Germans.
In June 1944 George Mantello, a Hungarian Jew and El Salvador diplomat in Switzerland, received with considerable delay the famous Auschwitz Report from Moshe Krausz in Budapest; he immediately publicized the horrors of the Holocaust in great detail. This triggered the Swiss people’s unparalleled grassroots protests and press campaign, with over 400 glaring headlines about Europe’s barbarism against its Jewish citizens.
This in turn led Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and others threatening Hungarian Fascist leader Miklos Horthy with postwar retribution.
Horthy understood the war was lost, and was forced to stop the transports to Auschwitz – which until then, took about 12,000 Jews to their tragic fate each day.
In Budapest, Raoul worked with great excitement. He was tireless and frequently thought of new approaches to save people.
He had excellent organizational skills; he built a fairly large group of hundreds of people, mostly Jews, into an organized company with departments and management.
There were departments handling financial matters, obtaining storage and distributing food, a clinic and orphanage as well as human resources.
His personality attracted talented and dedicated people to work with him, primarily because he offered meaning and hope.
Raoul helped Jews to help other Jews. He simply gave Jews back their dignity, willingness to live, confidence in themselves and humanity. He inspired people and, as a result, some were able to save themselves.
A woman I met told me she was Raoul’s secretary in Budapest, then an 18-year-old, blue-eyed Jewish girl. He sent her to various places, together with a Jewish man; they were fearless and didn’t wear yellow stars. The pair had with them a list of names of Jews who were supposedly under Swedish protection, and were able to save many.
Raoul also sent his staff to the railway station to help him rescue Jews there. At least once, he appeared with a bag full of Swedish protection papers and threw them to the people, who could then save themselves. Many Jews were also saved by forged Swedish protection papers.
During the winter and earlier, murderous Arrow Cross bands terrorized and murdered many people. Winter 1944 was especially cold, and the Danube froze over. This and the bombing and shelling of Budapest by the Allies made things even more difficult.
Raoul spoke German fluently and with a lot of authority when necessary, which the Germans respected. He didn’t fight the Germans; in fact, he understood them. He knew that many were afraid of being left behind on the battlefield, some were concerned about postwar retribution and many were worried about their families. This made it easier for him to negotiate for the rescue of Jews.
Raoul was able to carry on his rescue work because of his daring, passion and search for real meaning in life. It helped that people respected and liked him a lot; he maintained that his secret weapon was his imagination. Despite his enormous responsibility, he made sure to set aside a little time to cultivate some balance in his life, and did many sketches for his peace of mind.
One of his crucial contributions was that he brought kindness and humanity where there was so much inhumanity.
There was a spirit of friendship and collaboration between Raoul and some other diplomats in Budapest, including Carl Lutz, Giorgio Perlasca, Monsignor Angelo Rotta, Friedrich Born and Ángel Sanz-Briz. They inspired each other, and thus a few exceptional people saved large numbers of Jews – which was unprecedented in Europe.
One of the first actions by Russian forces in Budapest was to abduct my uncle and his Jewish driver, Vilmos Langfelder, on January 17, 1945, taking them to the Lubyanka KGB prison in Moscow.
Sweden conveniently considered him dead, and the Americans, who had persuaded him to go to Budapest, did not help him. My family was left alone to try to bring Raoul back home.
The world started to be interested in his exceptional deeds about 30 years after his abduction, but did not seem to care about his fate. It took over 20 additional years for Sweden to acknowledge his heroism, and apologize for being apathetic about his fate.
After my grandparents’ death, my father took on the task of searching for his older brother. He was a nuclear scientist and traveled to Russia over 50 times to try to find Raoul. His intense research put him in contact with talented and dedicated people who wanted to help. They included Andrei Sakharov, Russian nuclear physicist, human rights activist dissident and noted human rights lawyer; and one-time Canadian attorney-general and justice minister Prof. Irwin Cotler.
My father approached all relevant governments and institutions, but unfortunately in the end, lacked support from the concerned parties.
Raoul rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary. Three generations have been born since, and large numbers owe their life to him. Raoul’s energy, compassion, passion and care for others made a difference.
The War Refugee Board provided considerable sums, an essential tool. With these, he was able to buy buildings to use as safe houses and office space, to purchase food and cover other expenses of the rescue operation. His diplomatic status, independence from normal Swedish diplomatic rules and lack of bureaucratic interference were certainly decisive factors.
We are very proud to be Raoul’s family, and regret that the world did not try to definitively uncover his tragic and undeserved fate in Russia. In enlightened countries, generals don’t leave soldiers on the battlefield – yet if humanity truly cared about heroes, then Raoul would not have been abandoned.
My sister, Marie Dupuy, and I greatly respect our father for never abandoning his brother, dedicating his life to bringing him home.
Having read this piece, perhaps you can pause for a while and ask yourself what you now understand about Raoul, and how you would put into practice his passion, love and concern for other people’s lives.
The 70th anniversary of my uncle’s abduction is an opportunity to reflect and be inspired. Perhaps this is the best way you, the reader, can honor my dear uncle.
Marie suggests lighting a candle on January 17, to sustain Raoul’s light. ■ Louise von Dardel and Marie Dupuy reside in Switzerland. Marie’s website: www.raoul-wallenberg.eu