The Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg

What Spurred Swedish Businessman To Rescue Jews?

Meeting Raoul: Wallenberg’s heroism was influenced by the 1941 film ‘Pimpernel Smith,’ which starred Leslie Howard.
Getty Images
Meeting Raoul: Wallenberg’s heroism was influenced by the 1941 film ‘Pimpernel Smith,’ which starred Leslie Howard.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published March 14, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Hero of Budapest: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg
By Bergt Jangfeldt
Translated by Harry Watson
I.B. Tauris, 352 pages, $35

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the disappearance in a Soviet prison of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews in the darkest days of the Holocaust. Arrested by communists in 1945, Wallenberg never resurfaced, and his family and historians are still demanding that Russia reveal the precise documentary details of his demise.

A lucid new biography, “The Hero of Budapest: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg” by historian Bengt Jangfeldt, implies that the most compelling mystery of Wallenberg’s life was not his tragic vanishing, but rather how he decided to become a hero. Scion of a rich Scandinavian banking family, Wallenberg had earlier in his life expressed hopes of becoming an architect. He served as special Swedish envoy in Budapest from July to December 1944, after hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been murdered by Nazis with eager collaboration by Hungarian anti-Semites.

Rather than despair at the loss that he encountered, Wallenberg flouted diplomatic protocol to indulge in bribery and blackmail, all to save Jews. He issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory, making frequent trips to save individual lives by confronting Nazi troops and pulling Jewish deportees off trains, declaring them — without any real authority to do so — protected by Sweden.

Jangfeldt explains that part of this activism might have been due to Wallenberg’s identification with Yiddishkeit, although he was only “one-sixteenth Jewish on his mother’s side.” As a teenager in Sweden, Wallenberg told a friend: “A person like me, who is both a Wallenberg and half-Jewish, can never be defeated.” This feeling of invincibility was fostered by his grandfather Gustaf, a diplomat to whom Wallenberg wrote about his plan to hitchhike across America in 1932. “There’s a general tendency to exaggerate unknown dangers,” Wallenberg wrote. “Just imagine the enormous risks you expose yourself to every time you cross the street. Yet it would never occur to anyone not to cross the street.”

In the course of the trip, Raoul was robbed at gunpoint, and wrote home about his assailants: “They were the ones who were frightened, maybe because I was so calm. I really didn’t feel scared; I found the whole thing sort of interesting.”

Wallenberg was also an avid lover of the arts, even as practiced by some Nazis. During a trip through Germany just after the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin, Wallenberg wrote home: “Nazi Germany itself also made a good impression on me and the people I talked to, except for the Jews, claimed to be quite contented.”

This view would soon change, in part through Wallenberg’s attachment to culture, especially the movies. He adored Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers, and the British 1941 anti-Nazi thriller, “Pimpernel Smith.” After seeing “Pimpernel Smith,” in which Leslie Howard plays an archaeology professor who rescues victims of Nazi persecution, Wallenberg reportedly said: “I would like to do something like that myself.” One paramour, the Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, even recalled Wallenberg talking “intensely” about the sufferings of German Jews, after he returned from a trip to Berlin soon after Kristallnacht. At the time Lindfors thought that Wallenberg might have been putting on an act.

Though Wallenberg’s determination to save Jews was not merely play acting, it did include strong aspects of theatricality. Bellowing at Nazi officials in feigned rage to bully them into freeing Jews, Wallenberg wrote to his mother that he relished such confrontations as “exceptionally dramatic.” Wining and dining some Nazis — even Adolf Eichmann — to try to persuade them in bon vivant style to liberate more Jews, Wallenberg would verbally abuse other German officers. His friend, the Swedish diplomat Per Anger, later recalled that “when [Wallenberg] spoke to the Germans he’d use their language and yelled at them.”

Wallenberg’s efforts at saving people, however artistic and exuberant, were not always successful or even-handed. Jangfeldt explains that because protective passports were usually issued to Hungarian Jews who had established business concerns or family ties in Sweden, “it was mostly well-to-do people who were entitled to apply.” Yet Wallenberg also extended assistance to humbler deportees whenever possible. “The Hero of Budapest” affirms that Wallenberg’s unique personality traits and upbringing are at the heart of his stunning humanitarian achievement.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.