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Despite his father’s death, Raoul had an exceptionally privileged childhood. He was born on August 4, 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. His mother, Maj, gave birth at the age of twenty-one, three months widowed. Raoul’s father died of cancer as an officer in the Swedish navy. When Raoul was six years old, his mother married Frederic Von Dardel. Dardel, already with a son and daughter, supplied Raoul with a brother a sister. The new family became very close.
Although Dardel was a very influential and well-off man, the rest of Raoul’s family was also rich and powerful. One was an ambassador to the Swedish embassy in Japan and another a bishop for the Lutheran church. One uncle was the first professor of neurology and another was a jeweler and advisor to the king. Among these high ranks were also many bankers and diplomats of great stature.
With such a wealthy upbringing, Raoul was expected to be a good student and attended only the best of schools. He finished high school in 1930, graduating at the top of his class. He then went through a required six months of military training before moving to France for two years to perfect his French, having already mastered German, English and Russian. When he returned home, his grandfather urged him to study commerce and banking, but Raoul refused to travel the path of the previous Wallenbergs and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to study architecture. Not only did he finish a four and a half year program a year early, but he also received a medal given to only one out of 1100 students.
After completing school, Wallenberg entered the work force, trying to find where he fit in. He first traveled to South Africa to work for a Swedish building firm in 1934 for six months. In 1935, he moved to Haifa, Palestine to work for a Dutch bank. There, he met many Jews running from Nazism and was deeply touched. He returned to Sweden in 1936 where his uncle’s connections got him a job at The Central European Trading Company, working for a Jewish man named Koloman Lauer. Raoul was a hard worker and became junior partner in just six months.
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Koloman Lauer was not only a business man, but also a member of the Joint Jewish Committee in Sweden. At one of the annual meetings, Mr. Lauer nominated Raoul Wallenberg to go to Budapest, Hungary as a Swedish diplomat to bring as many of the 700,000 Jews to safety in the strictly neutral country of Sweden as possible. The other members agreed and asked him to accept their mission. He did, knowing that he was risking his life, but believing that the many he would be able to save was well worth it. Although no one is quite sure, they say he died of a heart-attack sometime in prison in 1947, but you never know.
Even though no one knows where to find Raoul, we do know he saved many lives before leaving the public eye. In the spring of 1944, all of the important Jews were already dead and a man named Adolf Eichnann was in the process of formulating a plan to be rid of the 700,000 Hungarian-Jews still in Budapest. On the 8th of July that same year, Raoul, now thirty-two years old, arrived in Budapest as a Secretary of Swedish Legation with no prior experience as a diplomat. By that time, 400,000 Hungarian-Jews had been deported to death camps in South Poland. Raoul saved over 100,000 using many techniques, a common method being issuing Swedish passports. For his great efforts, he was given an honorary US citizenship, the only other foreigner to receive such an honor was Winston Churchill.
Then, even though he was one of the most recognized people in the world, he disappeared. Raoul Wallenberg, along with his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, was arrested by an NKVD, ( Russian for “Peoples' Commissariat of Internal Affairs”), in 1945, only a few days after meeting in Soviet headquarters. He was suspected of espionage, (which was often masked as humanitarian work), on behalf of the United States and Great Britain. The two were put in a jail in Budapest before taken by train to Moscow. January 31, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg and Vilmos Langfelder arrived at a Lubianka prison where they were separated when Langfelder was transferred to Lefortone prison March 18. In February of that year, the Russian Ambassador to Stockholm had assured Raoul’s mother that her son was doing fine and would soon be released. He advised her not to make a fuss about it, as did the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister to the Swedish Foreign Minister.
But alas, despite the reassurance, Raoul was not released. The Russian government claims he died in prison in 1947 of a heart-attack, although several interviewed prisoners say they saw him in other jails after ’47. There have also been numerous reports of his sightings as recent as the late 1990’s. It was his mother’s dying request to never give up looking for him, so the search continues. Raoul Wallenberg would be 88 years old if he is still, in fact, with us today -- not an impossible age.
Wallenberg’s influence has not only spread throughout the globe, but it also spans across generations now, and those to come. My grandmother was a Hungarian-Jew; one of the 400,000 deported to concentration camps from Budapest just months before Raoul’s arrival. Stories spread of the Swedish diplomat, giving hope to the once hopeless. She was released only to discover that she was the only surviving member of her family. When married years later, she passed the stories she heard to her children. When my father found out I was doing a report on Raoul Wallenberg, in his limited English he could accurately tell of anything I had read; he even knew the correct pronunciation of every person and place.
Wallenberg has not only affected my grandmother, but myself as well. In learning of his perseverance and selflessness, I’ve been shamed into the never-ending task of self-improvement. I am now trying harder to better my working habits by fighting the procrastination and sheer laziness that seem to be forever-lurking. I’ve also taken time to help others with home-work, house-work and other things I can’t stand doing. My step-dad says it builds character. I beg to differ.
Nicholson, Michael and David Winner, Raoul Wallenberg, Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 1989: 92.
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