WHO IS RAOUL WALLENBERG?

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In July 1944, Raoul Wallenberg left the quiet of neutral Sweden and went into the heart of wartorn Hungary. By December, he had saved over 100,000 lives.

Born in 1912 into one of Sweden’s most prominent and wealthiest banking families, Raoul Wallenberg came to the United States as a teenager to study architecture at the University of Michigan. After graduating, his grandfather sent him to South Africa and then arranged a new job for him at a bank in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel).  It was there that he first met Jews who had escaped Hitler's Germany.  Their stories of persecution affected him deeply.

Raoul did not care for banking, and so when he returned to Sweden in 1936, he decided not to join the family business. Instead, he began working for a food export company in Stockholm. His boss there was a Jewish man named Kalman Lauer. It was Lauer who recommended Raoul when the American War Refugee Board was looking for a Swedish citizen to take on the mission of rescuing the Jews of Budapest in 1944.

Raoul arrived in Hungary in early July 1944, and immediately began to use whatever methods he could to save the Jews. When the Swedish Legation had reached the maximum number of passports it was permitted to issue, Raoul created Swedish protective papers, known as schutzpasses, which had no legal validity but which managed to fool the Nazis and the Hungarian fascists and served to keep thousands and thousands of Jews protected from the deportations to Auschwitz. He also kept hundreds and hundreds of Jews sheltered in Swedish “safe houses” which he bought or rented with U.S. funds. Wallenberg even went head to head with Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi colonel in charge of carrying out the Final Solution. On more than one occasion, Wallenberg literally pulled Jews off of the cattle cars, claiming them as his Swedish citizens. When the Nazis needed all the trains for the war effort, Eichmann began to march the Jews on foot to the concentration camps, but Wallenberg rescued many Jews from these so-called “death marches,” as well. At one point, Eichmann ordered Wallenberg’s assassination, but the attempt failed. When the Nazis were about to bomb the Budapest Ghetto, home to the city's remaining 70,000 Jews, it was Wallenberg who persuaded the general in charge to call off the attack.

In January 1945, the Soviets, who had just entered Budapest, abducted and imprisoned Wallenberg. He was never again seen in the free world. Though the Soviet government announced that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack in prison in 1947, many former Soviet prisoners who came out of the Gulag in the decades since then reported that they had seen, spent time with, even befriended Wallenberg in various prisons and institutions. The last such report was in 1981. That same year, President Ronald Reagan made Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen.

Wallenberg is credited with having saved over 100,000 lives. He is truly proof that one man can make a difference.