According to a hand written document shared by the Soviet Union in 1957, Raoul Wallenberg died of heart problems in his cell on July 17, 1947. By the time the document was released, both the head of the prison who had written the note, and the man to whom it had been sent were no longer alive, thus no one could refute its origin. Why Wallenberg was in a Soviet jail in the first place, remains as much conjecture today as it did then.

Let us not, however, allow the mystery of  Wallenberg’s fate overshadow the heroism of his life. Born in August 1912, Wallenberg was the son of one of Sweden’s most prominent families. With a penchant for languages and an architectual degree from the University of Michigan, Wallenberg ended up doing business in South Africa and then Haifa, before returning to Europe in 1936. Wallenberg became the business associate of a Hungarian Jew, Kalman Lauer, and frequently traveled to Budapest for him to check on business and his family.

In 1944, the American War Refugee Board sought to create a rescue mission for Hungarian Jews from the neutral country of Sweden. Wallenberg was asked to take the lead. He arrived in Budapest in July 1944 and immediately set to work establishing an embassy office near the ghetto and employing hundreds of Jews. Working outside almost all normal channels, Wallenberg dedicated himself to saving lives.

Here is just a taste of what this amazing man did:

  • He handed out schutzpasses, written out passports that offered Swedish protection – for which he initially only had permission to write 1,500.
  • He bought or rented apartments from which he flew Swedish flags, thus making them extensions of the embassy and neutral territory where Jews could be protected.
  • He convinced the Nazi commander not to blow up the ghetto by threatening to charge him with war crimes (the Nazis were already losing).
  • Wallenberg was so dedicated to his work that he was known for walking into the heart of Nazi operations – even boarding deportation trains – and handing out schutzpasses in front of the Nazis and then insisting that those with passes be permitted to leave the train.

In January 1945, as the Soviets conquered Hungary, Wallenberg and his driver Vilmos Langfelder left Budapest to go to the Soviet encampment at Debrecen. Neither were ever seen again, although for years after his supposed death, released Soviet prisoners described seeing him in jails and hospitals in the Soviet system.

Raoul Wallenberg’s true fate may never be known, but his unparalleled heroism has been universally acknowledged.

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