Rescuers of the Holocaust: Taking a Stand
Excerpts from Wallenberg, Missing Hero, Kati Marton, Arcade Publishing, 1982
pp. 38-39: Wallenberg is recruited for the mission to Budapest by a friend, Kalmin Lauer, who is approached by Iver Olsen, representing the War Refugee Board.
Iver Olsen, the War Refugee Board's newly appointed representative in Stockholm, was a man in a hurry, but after several weeks in the Swedish capital he had still not found his man. The job he was trying to fill was not an easy one. By this time, June 1944, the Wehrmacht had taken over Hungary three months before. Eichmarm and his Einsatzkommando were well on their way to sweeping the countryside clear of Jews. Since the middle of May, each day 12,000 men, women and children had been packed into airless trains, their death sentences sealed in with them. Rudolf Hess, commandant of Auschwitz, traveled to Budapest to complain to Eichmann. He was threatening the smooth-functioning crematoria with overload. Twelve thousand a day was too great a burden. But Eichmann was also in a hurry.
Olsen, an easygoing man of Swedish background, kept running into brick walls. There were not many Swedes interested in walking right into the jaws of the Nazi death machine. Nor would many suggest friends or acquaintances for the job. Olsen was too straightforward to brighten the job description.
It was in the elevator of the eight-story building on Strandvdgen that housed both the American legation, to which he reported, and the export-import firm known as Meropa, that Olsen first heard the name. A short, square man in a dapper pin-striped summer suit greeted the American with an unmistakably East European accented Swedish.
"Hungarian?" Olsen ventured.
"Yes, I'm Kalmin Lauer," the man answered, extending his hand.
Olsen did not let an opportunity escape. He engaged Lauer in rapid conversation and got to the point quickly. "I am looking for a Swede," he told Lauer. "Someone with good nerves, good language ability. He'll have to speak both German and some Hungarian. Someone who would be willing to go to Budapest and spend the next two months trying to save Jews from the Nazis. An independent spirit who does not need much direction. It's a big order," Olsen concluded. Lauer got off the elevator and wiped his brow; it was a hot day in June. "You probably don't know anyone who fits this bill . . ." Olsen's voice trailed off.
On the contrary. Lauer had just the candidate. He himself bad been talking to Raoul Wallenberg about going to Budapest. His wife Marika's parents lived in the town of Kecskemnt in central Hungary, and lately their news had not been good. Maybe Raoul could do something for them. "Yes," Lauer told Olsen. "I know the man for the job. His name is Wallenberg."
Wallenberg, Missing Hero, p. 96 - 97
The courage that Wallenberg displayed that fall and winter of 1944 was all the more startling because it was not based on a natural fearlessness. More than anything else, Wallenberg's bravery was a product of will. The calm he exhibited in the most unnerving situations did not come easily to him. This is what makes his behavior in those months remarkable. He was not by nature a man who embraced brinkmanship. On the contrary, he could be remarkably cautious. A small thing, like wearing the right shoes, he observed, could make a life or death difference if the Nazis decided to march you off. He had seen thousands collapse on their feet after a few miles as a result of wearing impractical, city shoes. From October be always wore hiking shoes, day and night. He insisted that his colleagues also do the same. His rucksack always held a change of clothes and some food. He was very young and had a healthy appetite for life.
Each day he also observed what a difference his own attitude and actions could make for the people around him. To a growing number of them he was the last remnant of decency and morality, the only one holding back the door against a tide of brutality and survival instincts. He was unwilling to disappoint either them or himself.
Washington, too, began to take notice of the performance of the War Refugee Board's Budapest representative. In a cable from the State Department to Iver Olsen in Stockholm, Acting Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. asked that he convey to Wallenberg the U.S. Government's "sincere appreciation of the humanitarian activities of the Swedish Government and the courage and ingenuity displayed by Mr. Wallenberg himself."
After the fall of Horthy, there were two kinds of terror at large in Budapest. There was the uncontrolled terror of the streets, the lawless rule of Szilasi's Arrow Cross-fascists and bullies who were motivated only by their own greed and the contagious bloodlust of the mob. And there was the carefully orchestrated, more articulate, strictly enforced terror of the men in Adolf Eichmann's Einsatzkommando, back now in their Hotel Majestic headquarters. They preferred to stay in the background, behind their Hungarian puppets, but there was little doubt who was pulling the strings. Eichmann had bided his time long enough. He came out of his retreat on the Austro-Hungarian border, and with him came his equally impatient hard core of henchmen. They did not have much time to waste. Russian artillery thundered louder each day.
Wallenberg, Missing Hero, p. 99
By now [Oct, 1944] Wallenberg had set himself apart from the Swedish legation, in its picturesque villa on the Gellert Hill. He moved to Pest, where his staff lived. It was more than a physical move. Henceforth he would operate as a separate entity, largely making his own decisions and reporting only to Stockholm. He took orders from no one.
In a memo to his staff he wrote: "This department must be in action day and night. There are no days off. If someone fails, he should not expect much help. If he performs well, he must not wait to be thanked." There were those among his fellow Swedish diplomats who were not enamored of his seeming arrogance and unorthodox methods. Was it proper, after all, for a first secretary to be Sweden's primary liaison with the Hungarian government? Foreign Minister Danielsson worried that Wallenberg was putting the entire legation staff in danger. But Danielsson resisted his Foreign Office's repeated calls that he and his diplomats return to Stockholm. Sweden had no intention of recognizing the Szilasi [Hungarian Facist] regime. It did not really see the point of maintaining a legation in Budapest. But Danielsson stayed on and thus enabled Wallenberg to perpetuate the fiction of eventual Swedish diplomatic recognition. Without the backing of the legation, Wallenberg would have cut an even lonelier figure in the lawless streets of Budapest.
Wallenberg was a driven man by now. He seemed to be everywhere. When he learned that an eighty-one-year-old man was being taken away to dig trenches at the front, he bombarded the Foreign Ministry with daily appeals for his safe conduct. With the help of his informers inside the Gendarmerie [police], he dogged the old man's steps through the countryside. After a half a dozen memos to the Foreign Ministry, the old man's tracks disappeared and Wallenberg gave up the battle to save him.