From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

The Story of Raoul Wallenberg

God helps the brave.

J. C. F. von Schiller

I’m a professional photographer. My offices in New York are only three blocks from the United Nations, where signs designate “Raoul Wallenberg Walk.” Those who know of Wallenberg think of him as someone who saved nearly 100,000 lives in Budapest, Hungary, in the last, fierce days of World War II. To me, Raoul Wallenberg not only saved lives, he also left a mark on those he saved. I know. He left a deep mark engraved in my heart and mind, one that has shaped my thoughts and actions ever since.

I first met Wallenberg on October 17, 1944, when I was a young man. By then, the Nazis had “cleansed” the Hungarian countryside of Jewish people; more than 430,000 men, women and children had vanished, at the rate of 12,000 a day, never to be seen again. Now, in the closing days of the war, the Nazis prepared to exterminate the last large population of Jews alive in Europe, those in Budapest.

Raoul Wallenberg, a young Swedish architect, had been sent to Budapest in July for the sole purpose of saving lives. He worked through the Swedish Legation, although he’d never been trained as a diplomat. He’d been in the import-export business and knew his way around Europe. His weapons were his wits, determination and a belief in the worth of each human life to the point of risking his own in exchange.

I’d grown up learning photography from my father. He was the court-appointed photographer to the Hapsburgs, the personal photographer of the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, and the top society photographer in Budapest. Admiral Horthy gave us a personal exemption from the existing laws imposed on the Jews. On October 15, when the Arrow Cross—the Hungarian Nazis—took over the government, all exemptions were canceled. Through my father I knew one of the Swedish diplomats, Per Anger. Knowing my life was in immediate danger, I headed for the Swedish Legation. Against all odds, I made it through the crowds of people seeking help, and was admitted.

I told Per the bind I was in. “Let me introduce you to someone,” he said. He leaned out the door. “Raoul?”

Raoul Wallenberg came in, a young man, early thirties, slim with brown hair. His air was down-to-earth, a center of calm in a world gone mad. Per said, “This is Tom Veres, a photographer, a friend of mine. He could be useful.”

Wallenberg said, “Good. You’ll be my photographer. You will document the work we are doing. You’ll report directly to me.” They made out official papers on the spot.

Much of my time was spent taking pictures for schutz-passes (passports) that Wallenberg then issued by the thousands. They stated that the bearer was approved to move to Sweden after the war, and was already under the protection of the Swedish government.

But the day I found out what it really meant to be Wallenberg’s photographer was a month later, on November 28, when his secretary handed me a piece of paper with his instructions: “Meet me at Jozsefvarosi Station. Bring your camera.”

The Jozsefvarosi train station was a freight depot on the outskirts of town. I took my Leica and got on the tram, not knowing what to expect. To tell you the truth, everybody, especially those on the Nazis’ hit list, thought lying low was the best plan. Keep quiet, keep out of sight. Don’t get involved. Yet here I was, on a raw November morning, heading for Jozsefvarosi Station.

I found the station surrounded by Hungarian Nazis and gendarmes from the countryside. Anyone in his right mind was trying to get out. Wallenberg expected me to find a way in. I shoved my camera into my pocket and went to one of the gendarmes. Using the world’s phoniest Swedish accent, I spoke in a mixture of broken Hungarian and German. “I’m a Swedish diplomat! I must go in to meet Raoul Wallenberg!”

The gendarme stared at me incredulously but let me in. The scene inside the station was harrowing. Thousands of men were being loaded onto cattle cars. Wallenberg was there, as were his Studebaker and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder. When Raoul saw me, he walked over and whispered slowly, “Take as many pictures as you can.”

Pictures? Here? If I were caught, I’d be on that train myself, legation or no legation. I climbed into the backseat of the car and took out my pocketknife. I cut a small slit in my scarf and positioned the camera inside it. I got out and walked through the train yard as calmly as possible, snapping pictures.

Wallenberg had his black ledger out. “All my people get in line here!” he called. “All you need to do is show me your schutzpass!

He approached the line of “passengers.” “You, yes, I have your name here. Where is your paper?” The startled man emptied his pockets, looking for a paper he never had. He pulled out a letter. “Fine. Next!”

Men caught on at once. Letters, eyeglass prescriptions, even deportation notices became passports to freedom. In his ledger, Raoul and his assistants carefully checked off, or added, each name in the book. I tried to become invisible, snapping away, trying to catch the atrocity of what was going on.

“Tommy! Tommy!”

I heard my name and turned around. Had I been recognized?

“Tommy!” In line, almost on the train, was my best friend, George. George and I had known each other for years. We’d been assigned a seat together in first grade and had sat together by choice every year since. He was brilliant academically, the valedictorian of our gymnasium. Now he was in line to die. I had only a split second to think.

I walked over to him, grabbed him by the collar and said, “You dirty Jew, get over there!” I pointed toward Wallenberg’s line. “I said go! Are you deaf?” I kicked his backside. He understood and got in line.

Wallenberg had pulled hundreds of men out of line when he sensed the Nazis losing patience. “Now back to Budapest, all of you!” he said.

The new “Swedes” walked out of the station to freedom. Wallenberg turned back to the captors. He began to lecture them in measured tones about health conditions, crowding on trains, anything to take their attention off the departing men.

As soon as they had a good head start, Raoul and I got back into the car where Vilmos waited. The danger we’d been in didn’t hit me until then. This man, a Swede, who could have waited out the war in safety, was marching into train yards—and asking others to do the same!

When we got back to town, I found George, took him to one of Wallenberg’s protected houses and took his picture for a schutzpass. “Now stay here until I get your papers!” I said.

The next day, word came: more deportations from Jazsefvarosi Station. Again I was asked to come. It was a ghastly repeat. Gendarmes with machine guns, thousands of men being herded onto trains. Wallenberg with his table and his black “book of life.”

This time my Leica was already hidden in the folds of my scarf. As Wallenberg started calling off common names that many men might answer to, I started snapping photos.

That day, my cousin Joseph was among those marked for death, as was one of Hungary’s great actors. I pulled them out of line to join Wallenberg’s hundreds.

It was then I saw my chance. I walked around the train, inches from the armed guards. On the other side, the side away from the station, I climbed onto the already filled car. The train hadn’t yet been padlocked from the side. I jumped, pushing all my weight onto the bolt that held the door shut. The spring clicked. The long door slid back in its tracks.

The men inside, who a moment ago had stood prisoner in the darkness, now blinked in the November sky. “Move, quickly!” I said. Men started jumping off the back of the train, running to the line where Wallenberg continued to give out passes.

Inside the station Wallenberg clearly saw that his time was up. “All of you released by the Hungarian government back to town! March!” At the same time a Hungarian police officer saw what I was doing. He pointed his revolver at me. “You! Stop what you’re doing!”

Raoul and his driver got into their Studebaker, and they drove around to my side of the train. Raoul opened the door and leaned out. “Tom! Jump!”

I didn’t have a moment to think. I made the longest jump of my life.

Raoul pulled me inside and Vilmos stepped on the gas. Raoul smiled and looked back at the train station. “I don’t think we’ll come back here for a while!” he said.

A couple of days later, at Wallenberg’s Ulloi Street offices, George’s mother came to see me. She was crying. George had tried to slip out to see his fiancée in a house two corners away. Two Arrow Cross thugs arrested him within those two blocks. I never saw my best friend again.

By January the Soviet Army was pressing close to the city, but the Nazis and Arrow Cross still ran Budapest. Wallenberg was in a pitched battle to keep the thirty thousand people in protected houses from being added to the seventy thousand people already locked in the Central Ghetto. He was doing everything he could to stop the pogrom to finish the ghetto off.

By now there was constant bombing day and night, so hundreds of us lived in the Ulloi Street offices. On the night of Monday, January 8, a pounding came at the legation door. Within moments, the Arrow Cross burst in, shining blinding flashlights from face to face.

The Arrow Cross didn’t know that Edith Wohl was at the telephone switchboard upstairs and that she made a quick call. “Everybody line up!” the officer yelled at us. “At once! Or we’ll shoot you on the spot!”

It was finally happening. I was standing under guard in line, about to be marched to my death.

“All right, everyone. It’s time for a walk to the river!” one soldier spat. He turned to a couple of his buddies sitting nearby. “It’s your turn to take them.”

“We just got back from taking the last group!” one of them complained. “There’s still snow on our boots!”

Just then the door burst open. There stood Wallenberg. “What are you doing? These are Swedes! You’ve made a very serious mistake! Let them go!”

The Arrow Cross turned, stunned, to find a truckload of Budapest police filling the room, guns drawn.

Raoul Wallenberg stared down the Nazi captain. “You heard me. Let them go. Now!”

The captain stared at the machine guns surrounding him. He stared at the Swede. The captain let us go.

The war was within days of being over when the bad news came. Everyone, Jews and Christians alike, who lived in my family’s apartment house had been marched away by the Arrow Cross because they’d found the huge hidden food stocks kept by the well-known Zserbo Confectionery stored in the building’s basement. My parents were taken as well; they were taken straight to the Danube and shot, their bodies thrown into the river. It was too late for Raoul to save them.

But it wasn’t too late for thousands of people whom Raoul had pulled out of trains or off marches. It wasn’t too late for the people in the ghetto whom Wallenberg and his accomplices had saved from the final pogrom, even as the firing squads were assembling.

The last time I saw Raoul Wallenberg, he and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, were getting ready to leave for Debrecen to meet with the newly established provisional government about setting up reconstruction programs. He asked me if I wanted to come, but I had yet to find out the whereabouts of my parents. The two men left on January 17 with a Soviet escort. Before reaching Debrecen, they were taken into custody by the NKVD, a precursor of the KGB. Neither man has been seen outside Soviet prisons since.

I’ve thought often about how the timing of my parents’ tragic deaths kept me from disappearing along with Wallenberg. Sometimes I think my life was spared so that I could tell his story.

What happened to Wallenberg is shrouded in mystery to this day, but what he did for thousands of men and women and children will always be bright and clear. The people whose lives Wallenberg saved, they were simply his fellow human beings, and as such, he felt responsible for them. He wasn’t some superhuman, although his actions were heroic. He was an ordinary person who dared other ordinary people to do what he did.

So here, I tell his story.

Tom Veres

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