Celebrating the 108th birthday of Raoul Wallenberg: An unlikely hero

This young Swede demonstrated how one compassionate person can make a significant difference.

Raoul Wallenberg (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Raoul Wallenberg
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, I am always emotionally overwhelmed when we approach this date. This August 4th, we celebrate the 108th birthday of Raoul Wallenberg, one of the most admirable rescuers of the 20th century.
This young Swede demonstrated how one compassionate person can make a significant difference, even against one of the most powerful and sinister murder machines in the history of mankind.
Wallenberg was an unlikely hero. As a scion of one of the most powerful families in Sweden, he could have chosen a very different life path. He was intellectually bright and resourceful. His list of contacts was enviable. He could have ended-up amassing a fortune and living a long and comfortable life. Instead, he opted to embark in a life-threatening mission for him and a life-saving mission for tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
On July 9, 1944, at the young age of 32, Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest empowered by the US War Refugee Board (WRB) and the Swedish government, with the clear mission to try and save the remains of the local Jewish community.
Without any previous diplomatic experience, he plunged himself into one of the most awe-inspiring rescue operations known in the annals of history. His organizational skills became a powerful asset that enabled him to recruit a great number of volunteers and partners to his orchestrated rescue effort. His social charm and courage proved to be significant tools with which he sometimes cajoled high-ranking officers and oftentimes threatened them.
Knowing the German fondness for colors and papers, he conceived the granting of schutzpasses, documents which were devoid of any legal status but nonetheless, conferred a reasonable degree of immunity to its holders. These certificates carried colorful stamps with the Swedish national colors and made a strong impression upon the Nazis and their local henchmen. It is believed that Wallenberg issued and distributed more than 20,000 passes.
He set up 32 safe houses protected by the Swedish and other neutral legations, populating them with more than 30,000 Jews.
He organized improvised health centers, soup kitchens and day care centers for the most vulnerable populations.
On several occasions, he went down to assembly points where the Nazis and the Hungarian Arrow Cross had been rounding-up Jews for deportation of immediate execution and boldly confronted the Nazi officers, demanding the release of his “Swedish citizens.”
In all, historians believe that Raoul Wallenberg and his team managed to save some 100,000 lives in just 184 days, a remarkable feat indeed.
By the end of 1944, Wallenberg understood that the Soviet forces were about to crush the Nazis in Hungary. He therefore he felt the need to meet with the Red Army Supreme Commander on that front, Marshal Rodyon Malinovsky, in order to discuss the future of the Jewish survivors in Hungary in the aftermath of the war.
NOT HEEDING the advice of his colleagues, Wallenberg instructed his loyal aide and driver, Vilmos Langfelder, to drive him east to Debrecen, to meet the aforementioned high-ranking Soviet officer.
The 230-km. road that separates Budapest from Debrecen was packed with danger, with bombs falling day and night, but on January 17, 1945, Wallenberg reached Debrecen.
Unknowingly, his humanitarian mission was about to come to an abrupt end. He who saved so many lives was about to become the protagonist of his own tragedy.
Instead of being escorted to Marshal Malinovsky’s office, Wallenberg and his chauffeur were arrested by the SMERSH (the Soviet Military Counterintelligence Unit) and both were transferred to the sinister Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.
What happened after their arrest is a matter of conjecture. Analysts apply commonsense and guesswork. Most likely, both men underwent harsh interrogation and at some point, under the orders emanating from the highest echelons in the Kremlin, were executed.
Back in 2006, in reply to a letter from our foundation to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which we asked the latter to open the relevant KGB archives, then deputy ambassador of the Russian Federation to the USA, Alexander Darchiev, wrote us that “responsibility of the death of Mr. Wallenberg lies with the USSR leadership at that time and on Joseph Stalin personally. No other authority could deal with a Swedish diplomat, representative of a neutral state, a member of the ‘Wallenberg House,’ well-known both abroad and to the Soviet Government”.
Darchiev, now ambassador of Russia in Canada, is a seasoned and respected diplomat who from 2010 till 2014 served as director of the North American Department at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His statement should be therefore deemed as totally credible.
Hence, 75 years after his disappearance we still call upon President Putin to enable unfettered access to the relevant KGB archives. Their scrutiny by experts might shed light into the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, bringing closure to his personal tragedy.
This is a debt we all owe him. It is not too late even for the Swedish government and for the influential Wallenberg family to speak up and urge responses from the Russian authorities.
In the meantime, together with the chairman of our NGO, Mr. Eduardo Eurnekian, we shall strive to continue preserving the inspiring legacy of Raoul Wallenberg and those like him: the women and men who reached-out to the victims of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide and other tragic conflicts.
All these heroes should serve as role models to the young generations.

The writer is the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a global NGO devoted to preserving and spreading around the feats of the rescuers of Holocaust victims.