Raoul Wallenberg, the Righteous Among the Nations, was Declared Dead 71 Years After He Vanished

Raoul Gustav Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912, in Stockholm, Sweden. His parents both hailed from prominent Swedish families, whose members included bankers, bishops, diplomats and professors. Wallenberg’s father, Raoul Oskar Wallenberg (1888-1912), a lieutenant in the Swedish navy, had died of an illness three months before his son’s birth.

His paternal grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg (1863-1937), a respected diplomat, took charge of shaping young Raoul’s life. The elder Wallenberg raised his grandson as a citizen of the world, ensuring he had opportunities to learn about different cultures and languages, and dispatching him on trips around Europe and other locales. Following high school, Wallenberg completed nine months of mandatory Swedish military service then spent a year in Paris. He went on to study architecture at the University of Michigan, where he was a top student and graduated in 1935. 

By the early 1940s, Wallenberg had taken a job with a Stockholm-based food-exporting company. Its owner, a Jew, could no longer safely travel through much of Europe, which by that time was under Nazi domain. Wallenberg replaced him on such trips and thus became acquainted with Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

In January 1944, the United States established a War Refugee Board to set in motion efforts to rescue European Jews and other Nazi victims. Having studied in the United States in the 1930s and having established himself in a business career in Sweden, he was recruited by the US War Refugee Board (WRB) in June 1944 to travel to Hungary.

He was given a status of a diplomat by the Swedish legatio. Wallenberg’s task was to do what he could to assist and save Hungarian Jews. Despite a complete lack of experience in diplomacy and clandestine operations, he led one of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts during the Holocaust. His work with the WRB and the World Jewish Congress prevented the deportation of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.

By July 1944, the Hungarians and the Germans had deported nearly 440,000 Jews from Hungary, almost all of them to the Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the SS killed approximately 320,000 of them upon arrival and deployed the rest at forced labor in Auschwitz and other camps. Nearly 200,000 Jews remained in Budapest; the Hungarian authorities intended to deport them as well in compliance with German requests.

With authorization from the Swedish government, Wallenberg began distributing certificates of protection issued by the Swedish legation to Jews in Budapest shortly after his arrival in Hungarian capital. He used WRB and Swedish funds to establish hospitals, nurseries, and a soup kitchen, and to designate more than 30 “safe” houses that together formed the core of the “international ghetto” in Budapest. The international ghetto was reserved for those Jews and their families holding certificates of protection from a neutral country.

As Soviet troops had already cut off rail transport routes to Auschwitz, Hungarian authorities forced tens of thousands of Budapest Jews to march west to the Hungarian border with Austria. During the autumn of 1944, Wallenberg repeatedly and, often personally, intervened to secure the release of bearers of certificates of protection and those with forged papers from the columns of marching people, saving as many as possible. Wallenberg’s colleagues in the Swedish legation and diplomats from other neutral countries also participated in rescue operations.

Carl Lutz, the Consul General in the Swiss legation, issued certificates of emigration, placing nearly 50,000 Jews in Budapest were under Swiss protection as potential emigrants to Palestine. Italian businessman Giorgio Perlasca posed as a Spanish diplomat; he issued forged Spanish visas and established safe houses, including one for Jewish children. When Soviet forces liberated Budapest in February 1945, more than 100,000 Jews remained, mostly because of the efforts of Wallenberg and his colleagues.

In December 1944, the Soviet military began a siege of Budapest. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, began a journey to Debrecen, located 120 miles east of Budapest, where the Soviets and a provisional Hungarian government were headquartered. The exact purpose of the trip is unknown, although one possibility is that Wallenberg wanted to discuss how to protect the Jews from pro-Nazi Hungarian thugs once the Red Army left the country. However, along the way to the meeting, Wallenberg and his driver were taken into custody by Soviet forces. What happened to the two men next remains a mystery, as they were never seen or heard from again by the outside world. 

Wallenberg was taken away by Russian soldiers supposedly to meet with the top Soviet general Malinovsky. This was on 17 January 1945. He must have felt danger, because as he was led to the Russian vehicle he said: “I don’t know whether I am being taken as a guest of the Soviets or as their prisoner”.

It is widely believed that Soviet jailers killed Mr. Wallenberg after he was abducted off the street near Budapest, but his fate has remained a lingering mystery. The official Soviet account, issued in 1957, was that Mr. Wallenberg died of a heart attack at age 34 on July 17, 1947, at the Lubyanka headquarters of the K.G.B. in Moscow. But few took that account seriously.

In 1989 Wallenberg’s diplomatic passport, cigarette case, and other items came to light in the basement of the KGB headquarters in Moscow and were returned to his family.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, a comprehensive Russian-Swedish re-examination of the case, completed in 2000, cited evidence suggesting that Mr. Wallenberg was executed in Lubyanka’s prison, but the report stopped short of reaching a definitive conclusion. In June, newly published diaries of Ivan A. Serov, the original head of the K.G.B., shed new light on the case by stating outright that Mr. Wallenberg was executed.

On October 31, 2016 the Swedish government  formally declared Raul Wallenberg dead, 71 years after he disappeared in Hungary in the closing months of World War II. The announcement brings only a partial closure to one of the greatest mysteries of the cold war – the fate of a man nicknamed the Swedish Schindler – as his body was never returned to his family.

“The official date of his death is 31 July 1952,” said Pia Gustafsson, an official from Sweden’s tax authority, which registers birth and deaths. “This date is purely formal. Legally, we must choose a date at least five years after his disappearance and there were signs of life until the end of July 1947.”

The decision came after a representative of Wallenberg’s family asked for a death certificate from Sweden, which published search notices for him and received no new information on his whereabouts.

Many countries have memorials commemorating his work. On November 26, 1963, Yad Vashem recognized Raoul Wallenberg as Righteous Among the Nations. His mother asked not to receive the honors in his name, believing that her son would one day return. Only after her death, in 1979, was a tree was planted in Wallenberg’s honor in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.

In 1987 Wallenberg was awarded honorary Israeli citizenship. He was also awarded honorary American citizenship by the United States Congress. This motion was promoted by Congressman Tom Lantos, whose life was saved by Wallenberg.