William D. Rubinstein: Wallenberg possibly rescued no Jews at all
William D. Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews From the Nazis, Routledge, London and New York, 1997, pp. 191-197 are cited from below.  William D. Rubinstein is Professor of History at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth.

The book's dust jacket offers the following testimonials:

Rubinstein has offered an important historical reassessment of widely held, but often unproved assertions.  He has ... laid down the gauntlet for all who disagree with his thesis to prove him wrong.  (Abraham J. Edelheit, Kingborough College, New York)

The Myth of Rescue is a commanding work of historical criticism.  Professor Rubinstein's rigorous analysis of a terrible time in human history should bring to an end the long and understandably emotional debate about the possibility of saving more victims of Hitler's Holocaust.  (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.)

The Myth of Rescue ... is a most important contribution to the discussion of America's role and responsibility regarding the Holocaust.  (William J. vanden Heuvel, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, New York)

Considerable detail may be found in Professor Rubinstein's footnotes, which are not reproduced below.

Very similar claims have been made, too, on behalf of Raoul Wallenberg in other, often unexpected sources.  The Guinness Book of Records is the world's standard reference work for superlative achievements of all kinds.  For the past fifteen years or so, each annual edition of this book has carried the following entry, surely one of the more surprising notices to find in the same volume as discussions of the world's heaviest-ever man, the longest snake and the best cricketing innings: ‘Saving of Life.  The greatest number of people saved from extinction [sic] by one man is estimated to be nearly 100,000 Jews in Budapest, Hungary from July 1944 to January 1945 by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.'39  Raoul Wallenberg's career was, self-evidently, altogether praiseworthy.  He was an authentic — and very typical — secular saint of the twentieth century who met with a terrible and totally undeserved fate, and no person of goodwill would wish to belittle his record of saving Jewish lives in Budapest in 1944-5.  Nevertheless, his achievements should also not be exaggerated, especially when the limitations on his ability to influence the situation in Budapest in an essential way are realised.  In particular, his actual accomplishments should not be inflated to score points on behalf of an American government body with which he was only indirectly connected.

No fewer than 110-120,000 Budapest Jews survived the war, and Budapest Jewry was certainly, in May 1945, one of the largest urban Jewish communities remaining in any place actually occupied by Nazi Germany.  While Budapest Jewry largely survived the war, and were never deported to Auschwitz, the reasons for this are complex, and Wallenberg's role in their rescue (and, as well, the part played by the War Refugee Board) should be considered objectively.  There is a series of separate questions which need to be addressed: what was the connection between Wallenberg and the War Refugee Board?  To what extent did Wallenberg's efforts save Budapest Jewry?  Conversely, were there other reasons, unrelated to any efforts made by the War Refugee Board, why so many Budapest Jews survived the war?

That the War Refugee Board greatly facilitated Wallenberg's mission to Budapest in 1944 is indisputable.  The Board's representative in Sweden, Iver Olsen (who was officially attached to the American Embassy in Stockholm) was instrumental in selecting Wallenberg as a Swedish diplomat who, with War Refugee Board backing, would attempt to rescue as many Hungarian Jews as possible.40  Wallenberg's appointment came despite the opposition of much of the Swedish Jewish community, who feared that this 33-year-old diplomat was a ‘lightweight' and would have preferred Count Folke Bernadotte (who, ironically, was assassinated by Zionist extremists in Jerusalem four years later).  Bernadotte's appointment was vetoed by the Hungarian government, and Wallenberg was appointed after Olsen, and the American Ambassador to Sweden, Herschel V. Johnson, met him and were impressed by his energy and courage.41

The War Refugee Board thus, certainly, must take a good deal of the credit for Wallenberg's appointment.  Nevertheless, in its ‘Final Summary Report' the Board heavily qualified its relationship with Wallenberg:

The Swedish Government granted him diplomatic status and stationed him in Budapest for the sole purpose of rendering protection to [Hungarian Jewry].  The Board furnished Wallenberg with detailed plans of action, but made it clear that he could not act in Hungary as a representative of the Board.42

The Board also provided him with some funding, but most — $100,000 — came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a long-existing relief organisation founded in New York in 1914.43  Wallenberg's posting was also the result of pressure by the World Jewish Congress (based in New York) and the US State Department.44  While in Budapest, Wallenberg derived his authority not from his associations with the War Refugee Board, but from his diplomatic status as First Secretary of the Swedish Embassy.  The fact that the Allies were soon bound to win the war, with Nazi murderers and war criminals held fully accountable for their wartime slaughter, he used as a weapon to good measure and as best he could; yet the Nazis and their Hungarian allies were fully aware of this fact without Wallenberg's reminders.

Wallenberg was chosen for his mission on 9 June 1944 and was given a Swedish Foreign Office approval on 13 June.  He was, most unusually, given explicit carte blanche to use any means he saw fit to rescue Jews, including bribery and direct intercession with Horthy (a privilege usually reserved for the Ambassador).45  All this took time, and Wallenberg did not actually reach Budapest until 9 July 1944, the day the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz ceased.  The ending of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry came on instructions from Admiral Horthy, who had become convinced, from a variety of foreign reports and representations, that Jews were deported not to work in factories (as stated by the Germans) but to meet their deaths.  A relatively liberal government, bent upon making a separate peace with the Allies, was in power in Hungary between July and October 1944; during that period anti-semitic excesses decreased sharply.  By the time Forenc Szalasi, the pro-Nazi head of the Arrow Cross, had been installed as leader of Hungary in late October 1944, deportations to Auschwitz were no longer a goal of Nazi policy: Jews were now needed as slave labourers, and Himmler had determined to end the extermination camps, probably fearing retribution by the Allies.46  Thus Wallenberg did not save the Jews of Budapest from deportation to Auschwitz.  His efforts were aimed, first, at preventing Jews from being murdered by marauding gangs of Arrow Cross anti-semites; second, at creating ‘safe houses', organised by foreign embassies and hence under foreign protection where Jews could live without fear; third, by deterring the Nazi-organised ‘death marches' begun by Eichmann in November 1944; and fourth, by allegedly preventing a massacre, by Nazis and Arrow Cross men, of the Budapest ghetto shortly before its liberation by Soviet troops in January 1945.

Wallenberg acted with super-human dedication and energy in all of these endeavours, and significant numbers of Hungarian Jews owe their lives to his efforts.  Yet virtually all the claims made on his behalf appear to be exaggerations of his actual role.  For instance, much of Wallenberg's efforts at saving Jews revolved around the issuance of protective passports (Schutzpässe) by the Swedish embassy to Hungarian Jews giving their bearers a kind of temporary Swedish citizenship.  They were also issued by other neutral governments.  These protective passports were recognised by both the Hungarian and German governments.  The German forces, who had previously treated such obviously fraudulent and contrived documents with contempt, now at least temporarily recognised their validity in order to avoid diplomatic unpleasantness with the Swedish and other neutral governments.47  By country, the number of protective passports issued in 1944 was as follows:

El Salvador


As will be seen, fewer protective passports were issued by Wallenberg than by Switzerland's Ambassador to Hungary, Charles Lutz, a professional diplomat who had also spent time in Palestine, but was unconnected with the War Refugee Board.

Furthermore, in the closing months of Nazi occupation, the Szalasi government refused to recognise these documents, and Germany, too, changed its policy so that, as Hilberg put it, these ‘protective passports ... offered very little protection'.49  The protective passports ‘were only occasionally respected by the Hungarian [Arrow Cross] gendarmes and hardly ever by the Germans', the editors of the published transcripts of Adolf Eichmann's interrogation by the Israeli authorities have stated.50  The innumerable massacres and slayings of ‘protected' Jews by Arrow Cross murderers and terrorists occurred during the last months prior to the liberation of Budapest.51  Despite doing his utmost, Wallenberg could save only a small fraction of the 50,000 Jews sent on ‘death marches' to German slave labour camps by Eichmann in November 1944.

Whatever success Wallenberg enjoyed came, at base, from the ending of the Nazi policy of mass deportation to Auschwitz, a change in policy which occurred on the day he first arrived in Budapest.  Had that policy continued, there is no reason to suppose that the Jews of Budapest would have survived the war in greater numbers than the Jews of rural Hungary.  With the abandonment of the policy of deportation — that is, of the Nazis' conveyor-belt murder machine — the Nazis and the Arrow Cross were forced to rely upon cruder, less thorough methods of killing even when the mass killing of Jews remained their short-term policy.  Indeed — as disturbing as this thought might seem to many — given the fact that foreign ‘protective passports' were not honoured by either the Nazis of the Arrow Cross, it is difficult to see how Wallenberg actually saved the lives of any significant number of Budapest Jews, let alone 100,000, although he almost certainly prevented the deaths of many of those he managed to remove from the ‘death marches' and those for whom he provided food, medicine and shelter in the international houses and the Budapest ghettos.52

Professor Wyman's claim that it was the Board's ‘diplomatic pressures' which ‘helped end the Hungarian deportations' is also very dubious and in serious need of amendment.53  On 24 March 1944, President Roosevelt directly warned the Hungarian government that the persecution of Jews in Hungary would not be tolerated.54  This warning obviously had no effect.  Shortly thereafter the Board persuaded Switzerland and the International Red Cross to contact Admiral Horthy in an attempt to stop the deportations.  Their overtures were useless.  In late June members of Hungary's ruling circles, including Horthy's son (a relatively philo-semitic figure who was in touch with members of Budapest's Jewish Council) were given authoritative information, provided by Auschwitz escapees, that Jews deported from Hungary were bing sent to their deaths rather than — as Horthy had believed — to work in German factories.55  On 25 June 1944 Horthy received an appeal from Pope Pius XII (the first issued by the pontiff during the war), which Yehuda Bauer has seen as ‘influenced perhaps by the liberation of Rome by the Allies on June 6', while Roosevelt sent a second warning to Horthy on 26 June.  On 30 June, Sweden's King Gustaf sent a telegram to Horthy requesting a halt to deportation, following his receipt of accurate information regarding the fate of Hungary's Jews from the Jewish Council in Hungary (by way of the Swedish Foreign Ministry), from the chief rabbis of Zurich and Sweden and from the Zionist Executive in Jerusalem.56  On 2 July 1944, American Air Force planes bombed Budapest heavily, an act Horthy became convinced was in retaliation for the deportation of Hungary's Jews.57

Despite all these pressures, Horthy hesitated another week before finally ordering a halt to the further deportation of Jews from Hungary on 9 July.  By this time, too, Eichmann and the SS were preparing to round up and deport the Jews of Budapest, a group whom Horthy and Hungary's ruling elite had always seen as ‘better' and more magyarised than those of the rural areas, and whose deportation would have entailed a highly visible disruption to the life of the Hungarian capital.  It seems apparent that the War Refugee Board's role in Horthy's decision was minimal, except perhaps in procuring Roosevelt's second warning.  The Board obviously played no role whatever in the 2 July air attack on Budapest, or in Horthy's misperceptions of the purpose of the raid.

The remainder of the claims made by Professor Wyman on behalf of the Board also appear to be highly questionable, with most being prime examples of what has previously been termed ‘pseudo-rescue': the removal of Jews who were no longer in danger of being killed by the Nazis to Western or neutral countries distant from the war zone.  Professor Wyman has, for instance, asserted that 4-5,000 Jews ‘evacuated via Turkey' were ‘rescued' by the Board.58  Omitting entirely any consideration of the Board's actual responsibility for their migration, all of these evacuated Jews came from Bulgaria and Rumania, countries from which no Jews were deported or killed, certainly not after January 1944.  (Rumania formally changed sides in the war on 26 August 1944.  From then on, she was officially an ally of America, Britain and the Soviet Union and at war with Nazi German.  Bulgaria followed suit on 5 September 1944.)

Wyman also claims as an example of the Board's success at rescuing Jews the fact that its representative in Sweden, Iver Olsen, ‘persuaded the Swedish government to bring in the 150 Jewish refugees in Finland.  This was a precaution against possible danger in Finland.'59  But no Jews, citizens or refugees, had ever been deported from Finland; in 1944 they obviously faced no Nazi threat and were no safer in Sweden than in Finland.  Wyman's contention that ‘8000 and up' Jews were ‘protected' by money provided by the Board's discretionary fund, used to provide ‘undercover protection' and goods for survival for Jews and Resistance fighters in Axis territory, may well contain an element of truth, but the numbers assisted are unknowable.  Similarly, his endorsement of the Board's own claim that it assisted ‘nearly 8000 Jewish orphans who were hidden in France in Christian homes, schools, and convents' might be wholly or partly accurate, as might be the inference that the Board had saved the lives of many of these hidden Jews from murder by the Nazis.60  On the other hand, no more than about 8,200 Jews were deported from all parts of France to Auschwitz between the time of the establishment of the Board in January 1944 and the last French deportations prior to liberation in August 1944 (some of whom survived the war): thus the Board's claim ought at least to be queried.61  As elsewhere in the War Refugee Board's ‘Final Summary Report', just how the total number of Jews allegedly rescued by the Board was arrived at is unclear.  The ‘Final Summary Report' was completed on 15 September 1945, only four months after V-E Day, and before the Nuremberg Tribunal (let alone subsequent historians) had pieced together the infrastructure of the Holocaust.  Regrettably, Professor Wyman has accepted many of the Board's claims made on its own behalf at face value, with no effort to provide independent confirmation of their accuracy.62

What, then, is an accurate estimate of the number of Jews whom the War Refugee Board actually rescued from death at the hands of the Nazis?  In my view, a very generous estimate, one which credits to the board all the ‘death march' Jews Wallenberg rescued in Hungary as well as those he saved from starvation, and all those, such as a reasonable component of the 8,000 French orphans whom the Board's actions were likely to have saved from deportation or murder by the Nazis and their allies, might amount to 20,000 persons.  Naturally, the survival of 20,000 Jews, marked for certain death by the Nazis, is wholly meritorious, and no one ought now to denigrate this achievement.  On the other hand, it represents only 10 per cent of the numbers asserted by Wyman and other historians.  So small a figure is plainly not evidence of any lack of energy or zeal for rescue by the Board, but striking proof of the virtual impossibility of the task the Board had set itself.  This figure of 20,000 Jews rescued by the War Refugee Board should, moreover, be regarded in my opinion as an upward limiting figure, not a minimal estimate or even a median one.  It is entirely possible that a searching and critical view of the role of the Board would conclude that the War Refugee Board actually rescued no Jews at all, especially after the complex issues of historical causality entailed in assessing the real responsibility for achieving rescue, and the multiplicity of actors and circumstances involved, are accurately analysed, and once the claims made by the Board during and immediately after the war are subject to close scrutiny in the light of evidence available today.63