When you’re studying the Holocaust, it’s easy to get swept away in the thousands of perpetrators and victims. It’s easy to lose sight of the hopeful part of humanity. Really, you should lose sight of it if you want to truly understand it. I remember my Holocaust professor at Trent University told us on the first day of class that extreme events like the Holocaust brought out the very best or the very worst characteristics in people. I think she was right.
Today, I’d like to discuss Raoul Wallenberg, a man who gave a large number of people a second chance at life. He is proof that in the midst of the worst human degradation, people can remain good.
Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish architect who in 1944 joined the US War Refugee Board and was assigned to the task of saving as many Hungarian Jews as he could. Hungary’s experience of the Holocaust was very different from most countries where laws were changed, Jews were moved into ghettos and deported at a very slow rate. Hungary however was an Allie of Germany for most of the war and therefore the Jews living there were protected. However, when the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944- death was to sweep the nation at lightning speed. By July of that year, the Nazis had deported 444,000 Jews, mostly to Auscwitz-Birkenau. Wallenberg was to save as many as he could.
Wallenberg arrived in Budapest and immediately began distributing forged Swedish documents of protection to Jews. He was able to get the Hungarian Foreign Ministry to approve 4500 of these forged passports (the Schutz-Pass) but, according to sweden.ce he printed almost 13,500 copies and distributed them anyways. He established soup kitchens, nurseries, hospitals and safe houses for those with “protection” to hide in. Wallenberg demonstrated incredible bravery distributing these, often showing up at the train station immediately before deportation and insisting Jews be pulled off the train because they had neutral country protection.
In the end, he saved almost 100,000 Jews in Hungary from certain death. Through his own courage and fierce negotiating skills, he became a hero. Of course, he had help and we can’t forget about his team, including the very important Per Anger (who will receive his own blog post one day). Wallenberg is now considered a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel.
Here are a few survivor testimonies. The first is from a woman who helped in the rescue operations and the second is from a survivor who received the Wallenberg papers.