At the banks of the Danube river in Budapest, dark shapes appear in front of the white snow. The sky is dark, no stars, no moon. The Danube is almost completely frozen, just here and there one can see the icy water. The people are freezing, starving and wounded. Gun shots are fired, dead bodies fall into the river. “Does it hurt, when we get shot?“, asks a small girl. Cruel and inhumane scenes like this happen almost every night in Budapest in January 1945. The Arrow Cross, an extremely violent fascist organisation, terrorises Hungary and its capital. Its members attack the shelters of the remaining Jews of Budapest aiming for their cruel goal: Destroying Hungarian Jewry. Suddenly, a police truck stops at the embankment. Armed police officers get out command in a loud tone to the Arrow Cross members and bring the families back to their shelter.
Interrupting in the last minute
Rescue actions like this happened dozens of times throughout Budapest and along the Danube river during the winter 1944/45. Thus, thousands of people could be saved in a time of incredible violence and brutality. The man who organised the saving of probably more than 100,000 Hungarians classified as Jews within half a year is Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat. While the Arrow Cross organisation slaughters in the streets, the organisation led by Wallenberg does everything to save as many lives as possible. Wallenberg distributes Swedish protective passports to threatened Hungarian Jews and opens shelters for them. These become some kind of Jewish enclaves offering even medical support. In these ghettos, the persecuted were officially under protection of the state of Sweden.
Sometimes, Wallenberg has to jump on train tracks stopping deportation trains in the last minute, demanding the Hungarian authorities to hand over the “Swedish“ Jews on his faked protection list. He stitches policemen to free captured people. With his team, he follows the victims of the death marshes with food and water. “Wallenberg became a legend“, says Szita Szabolcs, a Hungarian historian of the Holocaust Museum in Budapest.
Wallenberg was born in 1912 into a rich Swedish family of diplomats, economists and politicians. He studied in Michigan in the USA. In the 1930s he worked in the Palestinian city of Haifa, where he met Jewish refugees from Germany. He was deeply moved by their stories of what was happening in Nazi-Germany. It was the end of summer 1944, when Wallenberg moved to Budapest with his extraordinary mission. At that time, the Hungarian government led by Miklos Horthy for more than 20 years cooperated with Nazi Germany. Between May and July 1944, the Hungarian Gendarmerie had helped to deport over 400,000 Jews to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau – half of the Hungarian Jewry. Wallenberg faces a time of incredible violence and brutality. In October 1944, the Arrow Cross party took over power in Hungary toppling the government that is willing to change sites in the war. In cooperation with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi “blood hound”, they begin to murder masses of Hungarian Jews. “For me, it is the red Danube, not the blue one“, states a survivor later on referring to all the blood. Death is everywhere in the Danube city. The capital had become a mass grave. Only 200.000 of 800,000 Jews in Hungary will survive the Holocaust.
As winter comes, the Arrow Cross announces that the documents of Wallenberg are invalid. In addition, thousands of forged papers are circulating. The Red Army gets closer to the city to end the war. Fighting on the ‘wrong’ site the members of Arrow Cross realize that they do not have anything to lose anymore. They send the captured Jews onto cruel death marshes and murder the people they can catch.
Raoul Wallenberg disappears
Finally, the Red Army conquers Budapest. On 12th of January, Wallenberg invites his close helpers for a last dinner: Pál Szalai, who had infiltrated the Arrow Cross party and served with information, Ottó Fleischmann, a psychiatrist and Karoly Szabó, the „man in the leather coat“ who acted as German Gestapo officer to free people. Wallenberg does not want to leave the city without taking care of the Jewish survivors in the ghettos. He plans to ask for help and food at the Russian headquarter in Debrecen. But the unbelievable happens: The “Angel of Budapest” disappears.
It took decades to find out what happened to him and even today, his fate has not been clarified completely. His tracks are lost in a Soviet gulag. The Russians confirmed him dead in 1947. The scandal around the legendary Swede raised an international outcry. For years, Sweden demanded his release and an explanation from the Soviet Union.
1953 is the eighth year of peace after a horrific war. The mock trials of the Stalin regime are in full swing. Stalin arrests countless intellectuals and political opponents. Some months before his death in April, the politician suspects that Jewish doctors are trying to poison him and he starts pursuing anti-Semitic policies. In aiming to finally get rid of the Wallenberg-question, the communists want to prove that the diplomat was not deported to the Soviet Union, but murdered instead. They organise a fake trial and search a scapegoat: they choose the people who had seen him the last time alive at dinner in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest.
Tamás Szabó points on a picture in his hand. He is the son of Karoly Szabó, the “man in the leather coat.“ In the photography, Tamás’ parents are standing behind him, blinking from the sun, and Karoly lays a hand on his son’s shoulder. The photo was taken on a family trip in the hills around Budapest a few years before the war began. The father, Karoly, became the victim in the Wallenberg trial. On the 8th of April 1953, Karoly leaves his home for work but never arrives there. “There is no trace of him. Nothing for six months“, says Tamás Szabó.
Although the trial ends after Stalin’s death in April, the father stays in prison until November – in order to give the wounds he suffered during torture time to heal. When Károly Szabó returned home, „he was a broken man“, remembers Szabó. Unmistakable signs of torture cover his entire body. “His face was full of scars. Some of the wounds did never heal, not even by the time he died in 1964.” The Stalin era haunted many people for years. “I am sad to see that Hungarian society is still divided even 20 years after the end of the one-party system. I think that the wounds of the dark days in the 1950s are one reason for that", says Tamás Szabó. And the heroes of Budapest around Wallenberg had not been rehabilitated.
Wallenberg’s heroic actions are finally acknowledged
Later on, Raoul Wallenberg and many of his known helpers were honoured with the award “Righteous Among Nations”, a tribute from the State of Israel and the Yad Vashem Center for Holocaust Research. In 2012, US-president Barack Obama praised Raoul Wallenberg in an official speech. In Sweden he is a national hero. In Israel and the U.S. his story is well-known. Since 2013, an international film crew is working on a documentary about Wallenberg and his actions. It uses documents, reports of time witnesses to draw a picture of Wallenberg’s humanistic mission. It will be finished in the end of 2016. The movie is an effort to make his decisive actions more popular in many countries. “Wallenberg. Hero. Humanitarian. Missing Person“ is produced by two-times Emmy-Award-winner Brian Mait and New-York-times-bestselling-author John U. Bacon.
In Budapest, just some hundred meters south of the Hungarian Parliament at the Danube river, the famous memorial of the metal shoes reminds us of the victims of the anti-Semitic terror back in the forties. “The generation which was not meant to live“, it was called by one of the few survivors of Hungarian Holocaust.
71 years ago, Raoul Wallenberg and his team faced the people who had lost their humanity. “I will never be able to go back to Sweden without knowing that I'd done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible”, he said one day.
More about the movie here
Watch the trailer here