When Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Hungary in July 1944 a joint diplomatic and local Jewish effort to aid the persecuted Jews in Hungary was already underway.
From early in the war, and more intensively from 1942 onward, activist Hungarian Jews aided their co-religionists seeking refuge in Hungary, which until 1944 was a relatively safe haven. The most prominent Hungarian Jewish rescue activists belonged to the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee under Rezso Kasztner and Otto Komoly, and members of the various Zionist youth movements. Mostly they provided refugees with false papers and safe housing. Working together, they even sent couriers to occupied Poland to extricate Jews from the jaws of death.
On March 19, 1944, the circumstances of Jews in Hungary took a devastating turn for the worse when Hungary’s ally Germany occupied the country in response to the attempt by Hungary to withdraw its soldiers from the Eastern Front. With the occupation, the Final Solution was soon implemented. By early July, when the first wave of deportations ended, some 437,000 Jews had been transported almost exclusively to Auschwitz-Birkenau and only the large Jewish population of Budapest remained mostly untouched.
When the Germans entered Hungary, the leaders of the free world already knew a great deal about the murder of the Jews. As a result, the British and Americans issued warnings to the Hungarians not to cooperate in the murder crusade. Nonetheless, with official sanction, many Hungarians played an active role in carrying out the deportations. Only in July, after the D-Day landings in France and in the wake of pleas from the King of Sweden and the Vatican, did the Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy order a halt to the deportations. At the same time he proposed that several thousand Jews be allowed to leave for British Mandatory Palestine. Known as the Horthy Offer, this would be a cornerstone of future rescue operations. In the meantime, outside of Hungary — the United States through the recently established War Refugee Board, the agency charged with providing help to the persecuted Jews of Europe — turned to neutral countries asking them to extend aid to Hungarian Jewry. These imprecations would bear fruit, especially in the second half of 1944.
The idea of protecting Jews through diplomatic intervention and the issuance of protective diplomatic papers was not invented in Hungary, and had been used modestly in other places under Nazi dominion. In Hungary, however, in the wake of the Horthy Offer this idea took wing. Probably the first to extend diplomatic protection in Hungary was the Swiss consul Charles (Karl) Lutz who provided a safe house for Zionist rescue activists immediately after the Germans arrived. Following the Horthy Offer, he provided thousands of Swiss protective papers as well. Lutz provided papers because the Jews destined for mandatory Palestine were potential British subjects and with Britain and Hungary at war, neutral Switzerland represented British interests in Hungary.
On June 19, the Romanian commercial attaché in Bern, Dr. E. Florian Manoliu reached Budapest armed with 1000 Salvadorian citizenship papers he had been given by the representative of the El Salvador government in Switzerland, George Mantello. Soon afterward, the International Red Cross, which Horthy charged with the responsibility for the wellbeing of Jews remaining in Budapest, became involved in rescue as well, chiefly through its representative, Friedrich Born. Most notably in cooperation with Komoly, the Red Cross extended its protection to Jewish children who were safeguarded in houses bearing the International Red Cross emblem. At the same time, backed by the War Refugee Board, Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish representative charged with helping Jews, began his activities. Other diplomats including Angelo Rotta of the Vatican and George Perlasca, representing Spain, also proffered their protection to thousands of additional Jews.
The neutral diplomats worked closely with the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee and the Zionist youth movements. The local Jews were instrumental in obtaining food, clothing and medicine, and they manned the special children houses. They also worked alongside the diplomats giving out protective papers, and they forged thousands more that they distributed freely.
Deportation of Jews from Hungary renewed in the autumn after Horthy made one last failed attempt to extricate Hungary from German control. At this time, rescue activities went into high gear as tens of thousands of Jews were rounded up and shot along the banks of the Danube River, tens of thousands were herded into a ghetto, and tens of thousands were marched by foot to the Austrian border to build fortifications as slave laborers. The diplomats and their Jewish partners did whatever they could to forestall these deadly measures, with some success. Among other daring acts, Zionist youth dressed in military and fascist uniforms audaciously freed Jews who were being marched to the riverfront to be shot or were held in detention. An “International Ghetto” was established for Jews holding the various protective papers at this time, and thereby they were safeguarded to a certain degree. Rotta, in coordination with his fellow diplomatic rescuers, was made responsible for trying to gain concessions from the Hungarian government.
In the autumn of 1944 Wallenberg became a legend for his humanity, courage and resourcefulness in the face of the intensified persecution. Along with his staff, he could be seen pulling out Jews from the concentration point to which the deportees were sent. He sought those with Swedish papers, and paid little attention to whether they were authentic or forged. It is even said that Wallenberg used any paper on the person of the deportees that was not written in Hungarian to extract Jews from the forced marches to Austria, gambling on the idea that the soldiers on the scene could read only their native language.
Of course the tragedy of Wallenberg is that after having survived dangerous situations as a rescuer, he was arrested by the very people who had come to relieve Budapest of the yoke of Nazism, the Soviets. Probably arousing much suspicion for the different papers and currencies on his person, as well as for the fact that he was a Scandinavian, the Soviets seized him, interrogated him and funneled him deep into the labyrinth of their gulag system. One must also remember that hundreds of Jews, who somehow had managed to survive the Holocaust and were liberated on Hungarian soil, were indiscriminately seized by their liberators and imprisoned in the same system.
Wallenberg’s reputation as a hero was justly earned. Yet, he was not alone in creating an atmosphere of rescue that impeded the destruction of Budapest Jewry. It was the combined efforts of numerous diplomats and local Jews that contributed to keeping well over 100,000 Jews alive in the city until the Soviet forces conquered it in January and February of 1945.