Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish born and American educated businessman who studied architecture at the University of Michigan, remaining in the United States to travel during the summer breaks. After completing his studies he worked for a time in South Africa and Haifa after learning that his American training was insufficient for him to obtain an architect’s license in Sweden. By 1936 he was working as an importer-exporter in Stockholm, at the Central European Trading Company. The company was owned by Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew, who soon found his ability travel to Hungary restricted by increasingly harsh anti-Jewish laws.
Wallenberg began to travel to Hungary to conduct business on Lauer’s behalf. He learned the Hungarian language and by 1941 was the International Director of the company and a frequent traveler to Germany and occupied France, as well as Budapest. Sweden remained neutral as the war engulfed Europe. Wallenberg’s business dealings gave him deep insights into the Nazi bureaucracy and business practices. In 1943 the declining fortunes of the German armies on the Eastern Front brought about a change in the Hungarian regime and German troops occupied the country. The following year the Germans began the deportation of Hungarian Jews and Roma peoples to the death camps.
Wallenberg went to the Swedish legation in Budapest in the summer of 1944 and using funds raised for the purpose by the Swedish government rented more than 30 buildings. He declared them part of the Swedish legation, rendering them neutral territory under international law. About ten thousand Jews and Roma people were eventually housed within these buildings, which were labeled as libraries, research facilities, recreation buildings, and so forth. Eventually well over 300 Hungarians and Swedes were employed to assist Wallenberg and some were caught by the Gestapo or SS and executed for their efforts. Most of the executed were Hungarian Catholics, including clergy.
The Hungarian Nazi Party, known as the Arrow Cross, actively pursued the Hungarians and Swedes involved in the rescue effort, and Wallenberg countered them by changing his whereabouts daily, sleeping in a different location every night. As the Russian Army approached Budapest Wallenberg used bribes and negotiations with Adolf Eichmann to prevent the remaining Jews in Budapest not already under Wallenberg’s protection from being driven east from the city on a death march. One of the many Jews sheltered in the Swedish enclave was Tom Lantos, who later became a US Congressman from California. Lantos worked for Wallenberg as a courier.
Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians following their occupation of Budapest in 1945. After that his fate is uncertain, with many conflicting reports. Some say he died in a cell in Russian custody, others that he was murdered while being transported between Russian facilities. Still others claim that he was executed in Lubyanka Prison in 1947, one report having him shot and another poisoned. Conflicting reports have him surviving in Russian prisons into the 1980s. In 2016 the Swedish government declared him dead. His efforts succeeded in saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews and Roma people from the Germans, ultimately at the cost of his own life to the Russians.