Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.
This summer’s international celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg (Aug. 4) began June 26 with a symposium at the Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Jerusalem.
Although Wallenberg’s life-saving activities in German-occupied Budapest in 1944-1945 have been well documented and publicized, few people realize that American rescue advocates played an indispensable role in his work.
The events that led to Wallenberg’s mission began in 1943, when a young Jewish activist in New York, known as Peter Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook), established the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, to press the Roosevelt administration to save Jews from the Nazis.
Bergson, a future Member of Knesset, utilized protest tactics that were unusual for that time. For example, to alert the American public about the Holocaust, Bergson’s committee sponsored more than two hundred full-page newspaper ads, many of them authored by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht. The Bergson group also sponsored protest rallies, including a dramatic march by 400 rabbis to the White House to plead for rescue.
Employing what is now known as coalition politics, the Bergson group recruited a remarkable variety of Americans who disagreed with each other on many issues but all agreed that the U.S. should help rescue Jews from the Nazi genocide. The Bergson group’s supporters included liberal as well as conservative intellectuals, Democratic as well as Republican politicians, and an array of colorful Hollywood celebrities (including Bob Hope and Groucho Marx) whose support for rescue helped spark public interest in the issue. Bergson’s coalition also included prominent African-Americans such as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes.
In the autumn of 1943, Bergson persuaded prominent members of Congress, from both parties, to introduce a resolution calling for the creation of a government agency whose sole purpose would be to rescue Jewish refugees. The Roosevelt administration opposed devoting any resources to rescue and feared Bergson’s campaign would increase pressure to let refugees come to the U.S. But the administration’s effort to block the resolution foundered when a senior State Department official, Breckinridge Long, was caught giving wildly misleading information at the Congressional hearings on the rescue resolution.
The embarrassing publicity from the hearings, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and his aides, convinced President Roosevelt to establish the agency the resolution had demanded—the War Refugee Board (WRB).
That’s where Wallenberg came in.
One of the War Refugee Board’s first areas of focus was Hungary, which the Germans occupied in March 1944. As Adolf Eichmann’s mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began, the WRB’s agent in Stockholm recruited Wallenberg for rescue work. With funds and other assistance provided by the WRB, Wallenberg traveled to Budapest, where he was appointed first secretary of the Swedish diplomatic mission in order to shield him from arrest.
In the months to follow, the courageous and resourceful Wallenberg designed a Swedish protective passport and distributed thousands of them to Jews in Budapest, to prevent the Germans from deporting them. He used bribery, threats, and blackmail to interfere with the deportations. In one instance, he leaped atop a departing train and frantically handed protective documents to the Jews inside as German bullets whizzed around him.
Historians estimate that Wallenberg’s efforts saved tens of thousands of lives—including those of future U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife Annette. (Altogether, the War Refugee Board's work directly or indirectly saved more than 200,000 people, including those rescued by Wallenberg.)
In a tragic twist of fate, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets when they occupied Budapest in January 1945 and was never heard from again. The Soviet authorities claimed, in 1957, that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in prison on July 17, 1947. A later Russian government investigation concluded that he had been executed. But a number of former prisoners have claimed over the years that they saw Wallenberg alive in Russian jails long after 1947. The last alleged sighting was in 1987. Some historians believe the Soviets arrested and then killed Wallenberg because they suspected he was an American spy.
In recent years, the name Raoul Wallenberg has become virtually a household word. The television miniseries “Wallenberg” was viewed by millions. Countless books and articles have been written about him. A monument to him was erected in Budapest, and a postage stamp bearing his likeness was issued by the U.S. government. Wallenberg was even made an honorary U.S. citizen (the only other person to have been so honored was Winston Churchill).
If the Roosevelt administration had its way, the War Refugee Board would never have been created. And if there had been no War Refugee Board, Raoul Wallenberg would never have gone to Budapest. But thanks to the persistence of the Bergson group, its allies in Congress, and the rescue advocates in the Treasury Department, the course of history was changed—and America’s shamefully meager response to the Holocaust was a little less horrendous than it would otherwise have been.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”