Raoul Wallenberg (above), the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, was born one hundred years ago last month. Here, Holocaust survivor John Dobai reflects on his experiences in Budapest during The Second World War – and the role that Wallenberg played in providing sanctuary to him and his family.
I was nearly 11 when, one day in November 1944, my parents and I set out to cross the Danube from Buda to Pest. The aim was to reach an address where we were to be given shelter from the threat of deportation to Auschwitz.
My father was holding the so called ‘schutzpasses’, papers issued to us by the Swedish Embassy in Budapest supposedly giving the holder the protection of the Swedish government.
At the time, Germany and their Hungarian allies were clearly losing the war and the Red Army was approaching Budapest, the capital of Hungary. In the early summer of that year, over 432,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from the cities, towns and villages outside Budapest. The vast majority were murdered.
We were told to move from our flat to a larger house with a number of other families marked with a large Star of David. From there we were to go to a city block as a move towards deportation. Conditions were dire; there was no water, electricity or gas and no glass in the windows due to the bombing. There was also a severe shortage of food.
My father had been sent to do compulsory labour in North East Hungary and we did not see him for over two years. With the Russian army approaching, the camp was dissolved and my father walked the 250 kilometers back to Budapest. When we were reunited he set about trying to save our lives and eventually obtained the ‘schutzpasses’ from the Swedish Embassy.
These papers were given out due to the initiative of one man, Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who was born in August 1912, 100 years ago.
The Wallenberg family have been – and are – one of the oldest and richest families in Scandinavia. Family businesses included manufacturing, banking and finance among others. Raoul Wallenberg received his education in Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the USA. He spoke a number of languages and, as Sweden had remained neutral during The Second World War, was able to travel round Europe even though the war was taking place. As he travelled around Central Europe he became aware of the threat to the Jews of Hungary following the military occupation on 19 March 1944. He decided to join the Foreign Service and set out for Budapest to save as many lives as possible.
Raoul Wallenberg was instrumental in issuing protective papers to hundreds, later thousands of Jews under threat of deportation and death. He even went to railway stations where the trains were about to leave for the camps. At the same time he cajoled, threatened and bullied German and Hungarian officials to prevent or slow down the deportations. Using government money he bought apartment buildings which were declared to be Swedish territory. It was in such a house that my family survived the next few months.
Even when the Red Army surrounded Budapest the mass murder continued. The Nazis realised that the protection offered to Jews and others by the neutral countries; Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland and even the Vatican was on paper only and they emptied a number of houses in the international Ghetto. The people living there, men, women and children were marched to the banks of the nearby Danube and shot into the river. Thousands were murdered this way.
Fortunately, the Red Army arrived at the house we were living in and we were saved from the Nazis, although the threat of starvation and disease remained.
A few days later Raoul Wallenberg set out to reach Soviet Army HQ in Eastern Hungary to ask the Russians for additional food supplies for the starving inhabitants of Budapest. Soon after he arrived there he was arrested and taken away. The exact circumstances surrounding Wallenberg’s disappearance and death are still shrouded in mystery and to this day his family continue to campaign for truth.
While a number of countries tried to save the lives of Jews at the time, the actions of Raoul Wallenberg were the most successful. A realistic estimate of the number of lives he saved is put at over 20,000. Today his memory is honoured all over the world, including a statue in London, memorials in Budapest and by being named as Righteous Amongst the Nations by the State of Israel.
Looking back over those years, I still remember the terror I felt at ten and eleven years old whenever I saw German and Hungarian Nazi uniforms. To me it still seems astounding that one unarmed man, Raoul Wallenberg, could achieve all he achieved with nothing but his moral authority and his unshakable belief in his cause: to save lives.
John Dobai and his family moved to London in 1948. He regularly talks in schools and universities about his experiences.