Rescuers in Hungary: Carl Lutz & Raoul Wallenberg

This film clip, from the documentary The Rescuers, covers a number of rescue efforts that took place in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, in 1944. It sheds light on the work of the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, who started distributing special diplomatic documents that protected Jewish Swiss citizens. It also discusses the work of the Swedish envoy Raoul Wallenberg, who expanded this program and saved tens of thousands of Jews. The excerpt also explores Lutz and Wallenberg’s network (which included, importantly, the Catholic Church), which created a “safe zone” where tens of thousands of Jews were housed, sheltered, and cared for.

Guiding Questions

  1. What motivates rescuers to engage in efforts to save others at great risk to themselves and their families?
  2. What can we learn from studying the stories of rescue?
  3. What is the value of doing good when many good deeds are not rewarded?

Historical Background

During the last stages of World War II, from the spring of 1944 to the winter of 1945, a tragic story was unfolding in Hungary. More than 725,000 Jews lived in this country, “out of which 400,000 lived in Trianon Hungary - and 324,026 in the territories acquired by Hungary in 1939–41,”as noted by Randolph L. Braham. 1 At the beginning of 1944, most still survived under the controversial rule of Regent Miklós Horthy.2 But in March of that year, things took a devastating turn. Despite suffering huge losses and the continual retreat of their forces in Europe, the Nazis  clung to their imperial ambition, refusing to let Hungary sign a peace treaty with the Allies. They quickly moved in and installed a puppet government, which in turn allowed the Nazi killing machine to begin the process of extermination. The Hungarian puppet government thereafter began to deport hundreds of thousands of Jews to their death at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. All this was happening while the Soviet Red Army was knocking at the gate, weeks away from liberating Hungary.

Jews had lived in what is now Hungary since Roman times, and like many other Jewish communities in Europe, their fate ebbed and flowed. In the late eighteenth century, during the reign of Joseph II, many of the professional and economic restrictions that had been placed on Jews were reduced under the Edict of Tolerance (1782). Full legal and economic freedom was achieved in 1867, and as a result, the Jewish population grew to well over a half million from approximately 80,000 a hundred years earlier. In what is known as the Dualist Era, Jews experienced a period of unprecedented growth and emerged as leading agents of economic and cultural modernization. Indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century, Jews featured prominently in the liberal professions, playing key roles as journalists and intellectuals, contributing to the thriving cultural life of fin de siècle Hungary.3 The Jewish presence was especially evident in Budapest, where they made up more than 20 percent of the population. Their integration and assimilation into Budapest’s cosmopolitan society was similar to that of Jews in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or Berlin and Paris. Karl Lueger, the antisemitic mayor of Vienna at that time, gave Budapest the name “Judapest” to express his disdain for the influence Jews exerted on this thriving capital.

Following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, Hungary entered a period of unrest, a short-lived experimentation with Soviet communism, and a counterrevolutionary backlash known as the White Terror, which had strong antisemitic elements. Under the conservative counterrevolutionary government that served during the White Terror, also known as the Regent Horthy era, order was restored, the communists were defeated, and a number of bills were passed that restricted the legal and economic rights of Hungarian Jews (although this period was relatively free of violence).

In the 1930s, Hungary’s authoritarian government veered toward fascism and Nazism. By the end of the decade, it sought an alliance with Germany, which offered the largest market for Hungary’s agricultural produce. Most importantly, Nazi Germany’s expansionist ambitions aligned with Hungary’s own ambition to reclaim territories it had lost in World War I.4

Indeed, when World War II started, Hungary joined the Axis forces and annexed northern Transylvania, southern Slovakia, northern Yugoslavia, and parts of eastern Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia—adding tens of thousands of Jews to its large Jewish population (now totaling more than 725,000 people).

During most of the war, the Hungarian Jews suffered discrimination and harassment, but they were protected (with notable exceptions; see below) from the Nazis’ killing machine, which by that point had murdered as many as five million Jews in surrounding countries. Meanwhile, Regent Horthy, despite pressure from right-wing parties and Hitler, refused to deport Jews to Nazi death camps. Still, even before the German occupation, as many as 60,000 Jews died in antisemitic massacres or as slave workers in the military, fighting alongside the German army (until it was decimated in the battle of Stalingrad in 1942–43).5

In 1943, Hitler sensed correctly that the Hungarian government was searching for a way out. In fact, by the spring of 1944, Hungarian officials were in secret negotiations with Allied forces for a possible armistice. In response, the Germans called Regent Horthy in for “a consultation,” held him under house arrest, and then quickly took over the country. (The regent was released once the takeover was complete; he resumed several of his royal duties under the occupation later on.) Hungary, which had lost its army earlier in the war, could offer only minimal resistance.

Once in control, the Nazis published a flurry of decrees with the goal of depriving the Jews of their rights and property. Ignoring the Axis’s losses on the eastern front and its likely defeat in the war, Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the German killing machine, was rushed in to carry out the “final solution” (Die Endlösung) to what they called the “Jewish question” (Judenfrage) in Hungary.

Assisted by a special killing commando (Sonderkomando) unit, a group of fanatical Nazi henchmen, and the Hungarian police, Eichmann quickly put together an elaborate plan to gather the Jews in ghettos via the railway system (for easy transport) and deport them to death camps in Poland. Over a period of less than three months—between May 15 and July 7, 1944—Eichmann orchestrated the deportation of more than 381,000 Jews by Hungarian police to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were gassed on arrival. (A small portion of Jews went to other camps.)

By the summer, the Hungarian countryside and provincial towns were “Jew-free” (judenrein). But the fate of the roughly 120,000 Jews who lived in Budapest was not yet sealed.6

News of the fate of the Hungarian Jews came out, and the western Allies informed Horthy in no uncertain terms that he would stand trial for war crimes once the war was over. With the prospect that Germany would lose the war becoming more and more realistic, on July 7, 1944, Horthy and the anti-Fascist General Géza Lakatos decided to halt the deportation of the Jews (The Lakatos government briefly replaced the Hungarian-Nazi puppet government between August and November).

This new stalemate lasted until October 1944. Then the Germans, who were growing impatient with the delay in the killing of the Jews and feared Hungary would defect to the Allies, deposed Hungarian Prime Minister Lakatos and his government. In his stead, they installed the fascist leader of the Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi. Antisemitic to its core, the Arrow Cross Party enacted a reign of terror and killing in the capital. Many Jews were beaten by Arrow Cross thugs (known as nyilasok) and had their property looted, while others were taken to the banks of the Danube River, where they were bound, shot, and thrown into the river. In November, they forced tens of thousands of fearful Jews into a ghetto, a hermetically sealed area where the old Jewish quarter used to be.

Portrait of Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who distributed special diplomatic documents that protected Jewish Swiss citizens in Budapest, Hungary, during the Holocaust.

Charles “Carl” Lutz, the Diplomat

In the film excerpt, Agnes Hirsch, the daughter of the Swiss diplomat Charles “Carl” Lutz, describes how her father saved the life of a woman he pulled out of the river. That is just one example. In fact, thanks to Lutz, as many as 8,000 Jews were saved after he gave them special diplomatic papers and granted them safe passage to British-controlled Palestine, far exceeding the number of passes the British allowed. 7

Lutz arrived in Budapest in 1942, after serving as the Swiss counsel in Palestine, where he was able to intervene and stop the deportation of German subjects whom the British government marked as enemies. This endeared him to the Germans and allowed him some freedom to act on behalf of the Jews. As vice-consul, he was able to write immigration certificates to Palestine because the Swiss represented the British government, which cut its diplomatic relations with Hungary during this phase of the war. But together with a group of Zionist activists, they went even further. Soon they began to forge tens of thousands of these certificates—perhaps as many as 100,000—many more than the Germans ever allowed.8 As the negotiations with the Hungarian government about the status of these forged documents continued, Lutz procured 25 multi-apartment buildings, where he offered refuge to the Jews who received protective passes.

Now in the chaos and ruthless violence created by the Arrow Cross thugs and the paramilitary, Lutz issued “protective letters” (Schutzbrief) to all who possessed Swiss (and British) papers. These letters were given to Budapest Jews seeking asylum. Holders of these letters would be considered citizens of a foreign country and receive the same protections as any other Swiss person until their safe passage to their immigration destination could be guaranteed (among them were the tens of thousands of Jews who received certificates to go to Palestine).

Raoul Wallenberg, the Diplomat

Portrait of Raoul Wallenberg. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Budapest, Hungary. Sweden had specifically sent Wallenberg to Budapest with the mission of rescuing the remaining Jews in Budapest.

Lutz was not the only diplomat who took on the incredible challenge of saving the lives of the Jews of Budapest. Another was a young Swedish diplomat by the name of Raoul Wallenberg. He built and expanded upon Lutz’s creative ways of saving Jews. Wallenberg is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews toward the end of the war.

Wallenberg was a member of a distinguished family that made a name for itself in public service, diplomacy, and the banking industry. Wallenberg, trained in the United States as an architect, was a rather restless, ambitious, and fantastically talented young man. After graduating college, he chose not to enter the architecture profession and instead embarked on a career in international trade. His new pursuit brought him first to South Africa and then, in 1936, to Palestine, where he met Jews who had escaped Nazi persecution and learned about their experience firsthand.

In 1944, the Swedish government, which remained neutral and whose country remained unoccupied throughout the war, looked for a diplomat who would go to Budapest and help save Hungary’s 120,000 remaining Jews. Although he was a man of the world, Wallenberg was not a trained diplomat. He was nonetheless selected for the mission because of his fearless commitment to the cause. Still, Wallenberg had his own conditions: He demanded the right to speak with other diplomats without official approval, to receive undisclosed amounts of cash to stir, coax, or bribe officials who could help him, and to meet with Regent Horthy as he deemed necessary.

Many of the funds Wallenberg used came from America’s War Refugee Board. The board was set up very late in the war (January 1944), after the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was finally able to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to help save at least some of the Jews who were still alive in Europe. The board made funds available to Wallenberg, whose first goal was to increase the number of protective passes authorized by the Swedish legation (a process already underway on a smaller scale). And so, soon after his arrival in Budapest, and after fiercely negotiating with the Germans and the Hungarian government, Wallenberg got permission to issue several thousand additional passes. The number of passes he distributed was far greater than the number the agreement allowed (and many more forgeries entered circulation on the black market). It was not unusual for Wallenberg, as survivors later testified, to walk into scenes where Jews were about to be deported or killed and flaunt these passes in the faces of astonished German and Hungarian officers and pull people off a train or even a death march. (In November 1944, as the Red Army closed in on the capital, the Germans decided to liquidate the Jewish ghetto. They marched more than 70,000 children, women, and men of all ages to Austria. A few were saved by Wallenberg; many more died during the marches. Those who survived were eventually interned in camps).

In addition, Wallenberg and other international diplomats, including Lutz, began a process of renting houses under different pretexts to thousands of Jews who had been forced out of their homes. In the film, Sir Martin Gilbert describes the process: “The senior Vatican representative in Budapest, Angelo Rotta, from his office on Castle Hill, brought together all the diplomats—all the ambassadors of the neutral countries who were still represented in Hungary . . . and they between them, took buildings” and placed in them people they were able to provide legal papers. This safe zone was given the name the International Ghetto.

A map of the two Budapest Ghettos, 1944. One ghetto was created by the Germans. The other ghetto, known as the International Ghetto, was created by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, who used the area to safely house and protect Budapest's Jewish population.

Wallenberg’s operation grew into a huge effort to give the Jews legal protection, host them, and feed them. Eventually, as many as 15,000–30,000 Jews lived in the International Ghetto. (The film excerpt discusses this area in Budapest; see map above).9 As Gilbert argues in the film, “This was a collective act of diplomatic rescue, unique in the history of the Holocaust and indeed, unique in the history of diplomacy in any conflict.” Hundreds served those housed in the International Ghetto, providing them food, medical care, and other services essential for their survival. Despite the murder of thousands of Jews by the Arrow Cross between the death marches of November 1944 and liberation on February 13, 1945, close to 100,000 Jews from Budapest survived.10

But more trouble came soon. On the verge of liberation, in a final feat of nonsensical violence, the SS and the Arrow Cross decided to blow up the Jewish ghetto and the adjacent International Ghetto. In the excerpt, Gilbert explains the context for Wallenberg’s most dramatic rescue effort:

[I]n January, as the Soviet Army was approaching the city, and the city was being bombarded and bombed, Wallenberg learned that the Jews who were in the old ghetto around the Doheny Street Synagogue were going to be exterminated by the Arrow Cross [and the SS], some 65,000. Wallenberg, with incredible bravery, went to see the senior SS officer then in the city and said to him, “If a single one of these Jews is killed, you will personally be indicted for war crimes when the war is over, and you can hear the Soviet cannon firing, for you it is very nearly over." And the SS general gave the order to the Arrow Cross not to enter the ghetto and carry out the massacre. A week later, Soviet forces entered the city, and their first action was to seize Wallenberg, who has not been seen since that day.

Despite Wallenberg’s undeniable heroism and courage, tragedy continued to haunt his incredible life.11 When the Soviets approached Budapest, Wallenberg began to negotiate the proper liberation of the city’s Jews. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg was seen by his coworkers escorted by two Red Army officers. Wallenberg was never seen again by any of his friends or supporters. Historians suggest that because Wallenberg had worked with American authorities, the Soviets suspected him of working with the American intelligence organization. 12

 We wish to thank Balasz Zelenyi for his careful reading of this text and innumerable helpful edits.


  • 1 : The Treaty of Trianon was signed after World War I between Hungary and the Allies. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost and ceased to exist, Hungary’s borders were redrawn, and it lost close to 70 percent of its prewar territory. Hungarians felt that the treaty was imposed on them by the wining Allies. Later, when the Nazis rose to power, Hungary forged an alliance with Germany and was able to reclaim territories where large minorities of ethnic Hungarian lived. Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide, condensed edition (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2000), 29.
  • 2 : In monarchical regimes, the term regent designates an heir to the throne who is either too young or unfit to rule. In other cases, it is used for a monarch who is temporarily installed when the royal family cannot produce a king or a queen or its line has died out. Miklós Horthy was called a regent (instead of a king) because the traditional royal line was politically declared extinct after World War I.
  • 3 : The term fin de siècle (end or turn of the century) refers to the cultural and intellectual fashion that characterized the big cites in Europe from roughly 1880 to 1914. The term captures both the vibrant nature of European culture of the time and the modernist trends in art, philosophy, architecture, literature, and politics.
  • 4 : György Ranki, “Hungary,” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990), 693.
  • 5 : Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004), 381.
  • 6 : “Budapest,” United States Holocaust and Memorial Museum website, accessed March 5, 2013. Braham writes, “The Jews of Budapest were spared because the regent, Miklós Horthy, decided for a variety of reasons to halve deportations on July 7.” See Braham, The Politics of Genocide, 151. Among his reasons was pressure from a number of Allied governments and the Vatican. (The Vatican had recently been liberated from Nazi hands.) Horthy also knew from intercepted cables that the Allies planned to bomb the government buildings if the deportations continued. See Gilbert, The Righteous, 388.
  • 7 : Gilbert, The Righteous, 389. The British, who reversed their support for a Jewish homeland from earlier in the century, allowed only a very small number of Jews into Palestine during the war (although several tens of thousands arrived illegally). Lutz and other rescuers worked closely with the Zionist underground in Budapest.
  • 8 : Mordechai Paldiel and Robert Rozett, “Lutz, Carl,” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, 1990), vol. 3, 925.
  • 9 : Jews were to be hosted in the houses supposedly until the situation would allow them to make their way to Sweden (which for the moment was unthinkable, given the need to cross Germany).
  • 10 : “Budapest,” United States Holocaust and Memorial Museum website, accessed March 5, 2013.
  • 11 : Leni Yahil mentions the number 100,000. See Yahil, “Raoul Wallenberg,” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, 1591.
  • 12 : We thank Paul Bookbinder for this and many other helpful suggestions.

Connection Questions

  1. What choices led to the destruction of most of the provincial Jews in Hungary?
  2. How would you explain the Nazis’ drive to murder Hungarian Jews in 1944, when it was becoming clear that they would lose the war?
  3. As a diplomat, what options were available to Wallenberg for helping Jewish targets of the Nazis that were not available to ordinary citizens? List some of the ways Wallenberg was able to help the Jews in Budapest.
  4. What would you want someone to know about Wallenberg’s story?
  5. The U.S. Holocaust Museum is located on Raoul Wallenberg place. What do you think were the reasons for choosing this location for the museum?

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