The making of an unlikely hero.
To his prominent and wealthy relatives, Raoul Wallenberg (b. 1912) seemed not dependable enough to entrust with a responsible position in the family’s bank. As journalist Carlberg depicts him in this absorbing, masterful biography, Wallenberg was “charming, extroverted and creative, but also somewhat impulsive.” “He was very much a salesman,” a friend recalled. “He was almost always happy. And funny,” amusing his friends, in the 1930s, with imitations of Hitler, Churchill, and Stalin. After training as an architect at the University of Michigan and then working in South Africa and Haifa, Wallenberg returned to his native Sweden to seek employment. In 1941, he became an instructor in the National Home Guard, earning praise for being “more skilled and creative…than many of the career military.” Soon, he found a paying job as foreign director of a Swedish food import company owned by a Hungarian Jew. That was the position he held when, in June 1944, he was tapped to carry out a rescue mission for the American War Refugee Board, in alliance with Sweden. Multilingual, with high-level Hungarian business contacts, he seemed the perfect person: “highly skilled, of good reputation, [and] a non-Jew.” Only Stockholm’s chief rabbi was skeptical, concerned that Wallenberg’s real motivation was “a desire for adventure.” Carlberg’s tense, detailed narrative traces Wallenberg’s work in Budapest, beginning in July 1944. Starting with a handful of employees, by year’s end, he had 300. His talent at diplomacy—he had dinner with the furious, alcoholic Adolph Eichmann—was matched with bold subterfuge, as he managed to put huge numbers of Jews under Swedish protection. But efforts to exterminate them were relentless. Wallenberg placed his hopes in the Russians; although Soviet troops freed over 100,000 Jews living in a sealed ghetto, in 1945, Wallenberg was arrested as a spy and disappeared.
A riveting biography of a remarkable man.