Raoul Wallenberg’s previously unknown contact with the Hamburg merchant Ludolph Christensen who enjoyed the protection of SS General Karl Wolff, Heinrich Himmler’s right hand man, sheds new light on the origins of Wallenberg’s humanitarian mission to Hungary in 1944. Their association throughout the war highlights the complex nature of wartime business affairs and may provide additional avenues for clarifying Wallenberg’s disappearance in the Soviet Union in 1945. Russian officials have apparently known about these contacts for many years but have never released any of the relevant documentation. It is now clear that on at least one occasion Wallenberg’s firm engaged in the transfer of certain technical materials, including tools used in the manufacturing of planes for the German Air Force.
In one of his first official reports “concerning aid to Hungarian Jews” from July 29, 1944, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg alludes to an unspecified, highly placed person who has come to Budapest to aid him in his task:
“An individual who came highly recommended has joined me to help probe the highest German circles for future developments.”
Just ten days earlier, Wallenberg’s friend and business partner, Kálmán (Koloman) Lauer, had informed him:
” Our friend Ludo travels to Budapest tomorrow and he will assist you in every way. … Ludo has a [letter of] recommendation to a German military authority. He is certainly an absolutely honest hanseatic merchant who will not say anything that is not true. But you must not put him in any danger. You should instead wait until he himself makes a proposal.”
The mysterious man was a successful trader in foodstuffs from Hamburg named Ludolph Christensen. His father, Ludolph Sr., was a Danish businessman who had settled in Hamburg, specializing in the importation of various raw materials used in the food industry, including spices and herbs.
Ludolph Julius Christensen (1903-1983) had married the daughter of another successful merchant, Johannes Nootbaar, and eventually became director of his father-in-law’s firm, J. Nootbaar, Jr. In the early 20s, Christensen traveled to China where he learned about the various processes for drying vegetables and conserving meat, as well as a new technology for powdering eggs.
Christensen later became something of a pioneer in introducing and developing these technologies in Europe. He was also a recognized expert in the so-called transit trade. It was one of the preferred ways of bringing together the buyers and sellers of different countries during wartime, when the flow of goods was seriously impeded and currencies were not freely convertible. By all accounts, Christensen enjoyed a reputation as a gifted and thoroughly reliable businessman.
During the late 1920s, he made the acquaintance of Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian lawyer and businessman, who worked in Hamburg for a time. Both men shared an interest in developing trade relations with the Far East (where Lauer had lived and worked for three years) and the two had remained in close contact ever since. When Lauer, who was Jewish, emigrated to Sweden in 1941 and joined the import-export company Mellaneuropeiska AB (The Central-European Trading Company), the Christensen firm quickly became a corner stone of its client network. Lauer administered the affairs of Mellaneuropeiska together with Raoul Wallenberg who wished to learn the intricacies of international commerce and who – as a citizen of neutral country – retained the ability to travel throughout Nazi- occupied Europe.
It is well known that Mellaneuropeiska managed to import sizable quantities of foodstuffs to Sweden during the war, including large supplies of poultry, fresh and dried eggs and other hard to obtain specialty items, like cigarettes and fruit, mostly from Hungary. In his application for Swedish citizenship in 1944, Lauer put the value of these imports at about 10,000,000 SEK in just three years – worth approximately $25,000,000 today.
Few people are aware however, that almost all of these transactions involved the Christensen firm , since the goods required transfer through German territory and subsequent shipment via the Hamburg harbor. In a letter addressed to Swedish authorities, Raoul Wallenberg estimated that in 1943 alone his firm’s volume of trade with Nootbaar amounted to about 2,000,000 SEK ($5,000,000 today). The main beneficiaries of these goods were the Swedish public as well as the Swedish Army.
Together Mellaneuropeiska and Nootbaar also handled the transfer of sizable charitable donations, such as U.S. and British aid packages – through the International Red Cross – to various aid organizations in Belgium and later, to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. Ludolph Christensen personally oversaw the latter delivery and apparently managed the distribution only after many contentious meetings with the camp commander. Another example is Mellaneuropeiska’s successful arrangement of a large shipment of children’s clothing from Hungary to France in 1942.
Interestingly, Mellaneuropeiska, in its role as an export agent, repeatedly dealt with the Hamburg authorities in the transfer or goods other than foodstuffs. In January 1943, Wallenberg and Lauer received permission for the delivery of high-speed drilling equipment (worth then about 22,000 SEK, approximately $55,000 today) from the Swedish electrical concern ASEA – which operated in the Wallenberg business sphere – to Hungary, specifically to the Manfred Weiss Flugzeug und Motorenfabrik A.G. (Duna Aircraft Manufacturing plant). The Duna plant at that time produced planes for the German Luftwaffe.
At the outbreak of the war, the German Reichsbank put hard currency reserves at the disposal of those companies that had traditionally engaged in transit transactions with Europe and America. This allowed Germany to continue to procure important goods, especially from the United States, while earning valuable foreign exchange (through so-called “Dreiecksgeschäfte”, a form of triangular barter or compensation trade).
Nootbaar was one of these firms that managed to stay in business, on a smaller scale. Even though Christensen himself had no sympathies for the Nazis, his firm was considered “essential” for the affairs of the Third Reich. It fulfilled a vital role in the supply of critical raw materials and foodstuffs – such as powdered eggs (used for baked goods as well as the manufacturing of margarine) – to feed Germany’s population and to supply the German Wehrmacht.
Christensen was never a member of the Nazi Party, but his role was considered so important that he was freed from military service and he secured the crucial privilege of foreign travel. It appears that he procured these favors at least in part through the protection of a powerful patron – his sister’s husband, the SS General Karl Wolff.
The German authorities, especially the Foreign Exchange Control Office, imposed strict rules on transit firms and monitored them closely, since their activities inevitably accrued assets (foreign debts) abroad.
Christensen had been traveling to Sweden regularly since 1929. After the outbreak of the Second World War, his visits continued unabated. Yet for some reason, no dossier about him seems to have been preserved in the archive of the wartime Swedish Security Police. The opening of such a file, with very few exceptions, would have been a routine step, since Christensen was a foreign national who entered Swedish territory three to four times a year.
The reasons for the frequent visits were both professional and personal. By the late 1930s, Christensen had separated from his first wife and had begun a relationship with a Swedish woman whom he would eventually marry.
Through new documentation obtained from the Swedish National Archive and the Christensen family, a clearer picture emerges of the precise circumstances and considerations that led to Raoul Wallenberg’s selection for the Budapest humanitarian mission in the spring of 1944 .
With the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944, all Jewish citizens in the country faced deportation and death. The Nazi killing machine moved with frightening speed. Kálmán Lauer immediately began to rally all forces to protect his sister and her family (Irén and Ferenc Mihály and their daughter) and to save the relatives of his wife Marikka. These included her elderly parents, Lajos and Irene Stein, as well as their only surviving son, Julius Stein.
In one of the earliest accounts of Wallenberg’s mission, Austrian author Rudolph Philipp wrote that Lauer had immediately telephoned his “close friend in Hamburg” for help — this was in fact Ludolph Christensen, although his name is never mentioned.
According to Philipp, the initial idea was to create some kind of business deal between Hungary and Sweden that would provide an “advantage” and thereby an incentive for Germany to permit the departure of certain Jewish citizens from Hungary. Philipp specifically refers to a possible “transit transaction” (like the ones that were routinely carried out by Mellaneuropeiska and Nootbaar). Such a deal would result in much sought after goods and/or possible hard currency income for the Reich.
Philipp claims that these discussions occurred in June 1944, and that they at some point included the American official Iver Olsen who served as both the representative of the recently formed U.S. War Refugee Board and a member of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA)in Stockholm.
In fact, no record exists of Ludolph Christensen entering Swedish territory in June. It is doubtful that Christensen ever met with Olsen personally – such a meeting would have entailed enormous risks for a German national.
Instead it is likely that deliberations had already begun a month or so earlier, when Ludolph Christensen traveled to Sweden for a short visit from April 24 – May 5, 1944. During this trip, he and Lauer undoubtedly discussed the crisis in Hungary brought about by the German occupation in March 1944 and its likely consequences for Lauer’s relatives.
Raoul Wallenberg was away on duty with the Swedish Home Guard at the time, but he was most likely informed about the discussions and was expected to consult with Christensen around May 1 or 2. (see Fig.4)
Regardless whether or not the two men met at the time, some plan of action appears to have been settled upon.
One indirect indication for this is the fact that Wallenberg applied already on May 15, 1944 for an extended leave from his military service,
“to buy foodstuffs, partially for export to Sweden, partially for the distribution among Hungary’s Jews through the Committee that shall be formed for this purpose …”
This very much echoes the ideas outlined in Philipp’s account.
At the same time, the Jewish community in Stockholm as well as the U.S. government stepped up the pressure to find ways to assist Hungary’s Jews, with the help of the Swedish authorities.
On June 7, the American Minister Hershel Johnson discussed the situation with the Swedish Cabinet Secretary Eric Boheman who agreed to strengthen his country’s official representation in Budapest. In a letter, Boheman also outlined concrete Swedish plans for
“..sending food to those in concentration camps[in Hungary] to be distributed under supervision.”
This too echoes the initial plans allegedly discussed by Christensen, Lauer, Wallenberg and Olsen.
Precisely at this moment also came an urgent call from the Swedish Legation, Budapest for increased personnel to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis.
On June 12, Hershel Johnson reported home to Washington – to the U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull – that he has
“found Swede who is going to Hungary very near future on business trip and who appears willing to lend every possible assistance on Hungarian problem.”
Johnson’s statement underscores that up to this point Raoul Wallenberg had clearly intended to travel to Hungary in the capacity of a businessman, most likely in support of Christensen’s and Lauer’s plans. But he faced a serious problem: By the beginning of June, it was nearly impossible to obtain a transit visa through Germany, because the border with Hungary was essentially closed.
On June 12 and again on June 15, Wallenberg met with Iver Olsen to discuss the possible rescue action and it must have been decided at this point that Wallenberg should receive a formal diplomatic appointment. Such a step meant that he would have to abstain from any commercial activities, but this hardly mattered, since Lauer would continue to manage Mellaneuropeiska’s affairs.
In a two page summary he wrote after the war about his activities in Hungary in 1944, Ludolph Christensen relates how just a few days earlier, on June 5, 1944, he had set out on a trip to Karlsbad (then part of the annexed Sudetenland) to meet with an “high officer of the Waffen SS”. This was almost certainly General Wolff who frequently traveled there to recover from a serious kidney ailment that had required an operation the year before. In 1943, Wolff had finally obtained permission to divorce his first wife and to marry Christensen’s sister, Ingrid, with whom he had a liaison since 1936.
Christensen apparently received a [letter of] recommendation from Wolff to his friend, Edmund Veesenmayer, Reich Plenipotentiary in Hungary. However, Christensen was prevented from immediately proceeding to Hungary by the Allied bombing of his company buildings in Hamburg, which required his urgent return. He was only able to obtain a visa for travel to Budapest by mid-July 1944.
On July 22, Raoul Wallenberg sent a telegram, confirming Christensen’s arrival (“Ludo angekommen”.)
In his summary account Christensen explains how upon his arrival in Budapest, he went straight away to see Raoul Wallenberg who introduced him to the First Secretary at the Swedish Legation, Per Anger. Wallenberg explained that Christensen had come to assist them “with their project”. Anger provided Christensen with a copy of a Swedish ‘note verbale’ which he and Wallenberg planned to present to the Hungarian authorities, asking for the protection of twenty-five Jewish individuals with ties to Sweden. The list included Kálmán Lauer’s sister, her husband and their daughter, as well as Marikka Lauer’s relatives.
Christensen then immediately went to see Veesenmayer who referred him to Theodor Grell, the official in charge of Jewish affairs at the German Legation. According to Christensen, Grell expressed great surprise, wondering
“why would I – a German citizen – concern myself with rescuing Jews?”
“I explained that Koloman and Marikka Lauer were my good friends in Sweden and that it should not be a problem to release the people named in the official Swedish ‘note verbale’ of which I handed him a copy.”
Grell replied that the Jews who had lived in the provinces he could
” ‘no longer obtain’, precisely as if he was talking about an item that had sold out“,
Christensen finally received Grell’s assurances that those Jews mentioned in the ‘note verbale’ who remained in Budapest would be protected and permitted to leave.
The next few days, Christensen and Wallenberg spent filling out forms on behalf of those who could possibly be rescued.
Christensen then went to see Grell again, to plead for Lauer’s sister and her family, but did not succeed in winning permission for them to depart for Sweden. It appears that through his efforts, however, a small group of other individuals were later allowed to leave Hungary.
The German authorities soon objected to Christensen’s presence and it was made clear to him that he should depart as soon as possible.
Christensen writes that during his last night in Budapest he and Raoul Wallenberg had dinner on the veranda of the famous Gellert hotel. Wallenberg pointed out another guest, the head of the Fascist Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi, who was seated at a neighboring table. A few months later, Szálasi would gain power, plunging the country into complete chaos, with his Arrow Cross followers murdering Jews nearly at will.
When Christensen left Hungary on August 1, 1944, Wallenberg asked him to deliver greetings to his mother and to tell her that he planned to travel home to Sweden via “Siberia, China and the United States”. Christensen says that Wallenberg was curious about the Far East and that he felt his diplomatic passport would offer all the necessary protection he needed for such a trip.
With Christensen’s stay in Budapest cut short, one wonders what happened to his and Wallenberg’s plans
“to probe the highest German circles for future developments”.
Given Christensen’s personal connections, it would be interesting to know if these plans referred solely to the subject of Jewish deportations or if topics like how to find a quick end to the war, through possible separate peace agreements (between Germany and the Allies), were perhaps intended to become part of these considerations. Numerous such initiatives were under way at the time, in both Budapest and Stockholm.
Interestingly, right after Christensen’s arrival in Budapest, Wallenberg had sent a coded telegram to Sweden on this very subject.
In this telegram he urged the Americans to ensure that if a separate peace agreement would be concluded between Germany and the Allies (possibly the Soviet Union), the protection of the Jews was secured well in advance. It is unclear if Wallenberg was reacting to certain rumors circulating in Budapest or if Christensen could have been the source of this information.
It is well known that Stalin strongly disapproved of such discussions, and he especially objected to the deal made in early 1945 by U.S. intelligence chief Allen Dulles with General Wolff – the so-called “Operation Sunrise”. Wolff had arranged the full surrender of the German Army in Italy to U.S. authorities without prior knowledge or involvement of the Soviet leadership.
In this connection it would be of some interest to examine what exactly the Russians knew about Raoul Wallenberg’s long-time association with Christensen and if so, how they assessed this contact. From the Soviet perspective, Mellaneuropeiska’s German business dealings may have simply confirmed that – wartime or not – Sweden and Raoul Wallenberg were ready to maintain profitable relations with the Third Reich. It also needs to be established if the Soviets linked Raoul Wallenberg in any way to Karl Wolff (via Christensen, for example) or to separate peace discussions in general.
There is some indication that Soviet officials have known about Raoul Wallenberg’s German business contacts for some time, even though this information has never been shared in detail .
In 2004, Vladimir Sokolov, the Russian diplomat, historian and former member of the official Russian-Swedish Working Group that investigated the Wallenberg case during the 1990s, published several summary notes about his participation in this work (Zametki uchastnika rossisko-shvedskoi rabochei gruppy po “delu Wallenberga”, Novaya i Noveishaya Istoria, 2004). He writes that during the war,
“Raoul Wallenberg, like his rich relatives from the ‘house of Wallenberg’ traded successfully with firms of fascist Germany, including trading in strategic materials.”
Sokolov does not clarify from which source he obtained this information, but it appears to be a clear reference to Mellaneuropeiska’s contacts with German firms like Nootbaar and the trade in goods other than foodstuffs. His claims were never discussed in the Working Group.
It is worth noting that Christensen’s name was left out of all accounts of Wallenberg’s mission. And even though he went to great length to assist Lauer’s family and his actions carried considerable risk, he himself never mentioned his role after the war, including in his application for Swedish citizenship filed in 1952.
Christensen was by nature a modest man, yet his silence may be due to a number of considerations. Perhaps he felt that he did not want to draw undue attention to himself, for both personal and professional reasons. Undoubtedly, his sister’s marriage to Karl Wolff and the use of this connection for Christensen’s actions in Budapest could have been misinterpreted and lead to unwanted publicity.
It is also an indisputable fact that Mellaneuropeiska had maintained and profited from extensive trade relations with a German firm during the war years. There may have been fears that this association could have sparked public controversy about perceived “war profiteering” and could end up harming Raoul Wallenberg’s reputation.
Mellaneuropeiska’s association with Nootbaar was undoubtedly a double edged sword: On the one hand, the contacts secured key goods (foodstuffs/raw materials) for Sweden during war time, ensuring adequate supplies and providing a true national service. In addition, large charitable donations were facilitated with Christensen’s help. On the other hand, all this was achieved with the assistance of a firm that had been designated “vital” to the Third Reich and that produced key benefits (foreign exchange and goods) for the Nazi government.
That the matter was sensitive is underscored by the fact that Kálmán Lauer’s lengthy account of his economic activities in Sweden – which he submitted as part of his own application for Swedish citizenship in 1944 – does not once mention Ludolph Christensen by name, even though most of the cited transactions involved Christensen’s person and/or his firm.
Finally, Christensen may have been concerned about how his actions might be perceived by certain conservative circles in post-war Germany and in Sweden.
During the war years, Mellaneuropeiska functioned in a completely anglophile, anti-Nazi environment ; one that also was very much pro-German, in the sense that many people in Sweden had deep sympathies for the “ordinary” German who opposed Hitler’s dictatorship. Wallenberg’s and Lauer’s personal outlook is quite clear on this point. So are the attitudes of Carl Matthiessen and Sven Salén, the owners of Banankompaniet (under whose umbrella Mellaneuropeiska operated). Matthiessen was a staunch supporter of the Norwegian resistance and was close friends with several key British diplomats and intelligence representatives in Stockholm. Salén’s mindset too was definitely pro-Allied. (He served as Vice-President of the Swedish-American Society for many years).
Yet, all these men certainly had a very pragmatic attitude when it came to business. It was clear that old friendships and associations weighed heavily in the balance. The all important goal was to help and protect fellow business associates and, in the process, secure a favorable position for Swedish companies in the post-war economy.
To this end, businessmen like Matthiessen and Salén, as well their bankers – the powerful Wallenberg brothers chief among them – extended considerable assistance to numerous persons throughout the war, across a broad political and ideological spectrum.
Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg played a key role in helping German companies and individuals cloak their assets abroad, for which they stood accused by U.S. authorities for aiding the enemy; and rightly so, in spite of recent attempts to portray these transactions solely as a means of supporting old associates and the German resistance.
Matthiessen’s company, meanwhile, had longstanding ties to Hungary and the family behind the country’s most important industrial concern , Manfred Weiss. He was instrumental in offering the Weiss family important assistance in Sweden, including the safeguarding of some of their holdings.
Raoul Wallenberg’s plans for an organization dedicated to the restitution of Jewish property in Hungary after the war – including lost patent and cartel rights – is another example of this approach.
None of the foregoing in any way diminishes Raoul Wallenberg’s work or accomplishments in Budapest in 1944. His German business contacts, however, may have further enhanced the already strong Soviet suspicions about his person. In January 1945 Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet forces and taken to Moscow where he disappeared.
It needs to be determined if Wallenberg’s association with Ludolph Christensen had any broader ramifications for his later fate. Future research will have to show if the Russians attached any significance to Wallenberg’s German connections or if they regarded them as mostly incidental. In order to do so, it will also be necessary to gain a deeper understanding of Mellaneuropeiska‘s full range of activities during the war years.
Susanne Berger is a historical researcher and journalist who has studied the background of the Raoul Wallenberg case for many years. She served as an independent consultant to the Russian-Swedish Working Group from 1995-2001.
C.G.McKay has written several research reports on the case of Raoul Wallenberg and is the author of the books “From Information to Intrigue” (1993) and (with Bengt Beckman) “Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945” (2003).
Vadim Birstein, a biologist and historian, was a member of the first International Commission on Raoul Wallenberg headed by Prof. Guy von Dardel, Wallenberg’s half-brother, in 1990-91. He has published many articles on the Wallenberg case (some co-authored with Susanne Berger) and is the author of the books “The Perversion of Knowledge: The True History of Soviet Science” (2001) and “SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: Soviet Military counterintelligence in WWII” (2012), which received the inaugural St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book Award in 2012.