Swedens Wallenbergs explained in family biography

How did a Lutheran Swedish family — dedicated to building a fortune — produce a scion whose most precious commodity was freeing the otherwise doomed Hungarian Jews? Clues to that mystery can be found in David Bartal’s book “The Empire: Rise of the House of Wallenberg.”

The legendary Raoul Wallenberg was a man of genuine nobility and heroism who saved 20,000 to 100,00 Jews from the Holocaust within six months in 1944.

The legend associated with his family is quite different. For decades, Wallenbergs have been bankers and businessmen, controlling most of Sweden’s top companies. “In no other Western country,” Bartal writes in the softcover, “does a single family enjoy the same degree of influence or authority.”

The author traces the family’s history back to Jacob Wallenberg, who went to sea in 1760 and became a world traveler. Jacob praised the British for their tolerance of Jews and Catholics and wondered why Sweden could not accept these minorities as well.

Meaner in spirit was his great-nephew, André Oscar Wallenberg, who founded Stockholm’s Enskilda Bank. Faced with a financial crisis at one point, he blamed it on a conspiracy that included “the Jews.”

During both World Wars, Wallenbergs worked with the Swedish government to maintain its neutrality and negotiate trade agreements with the British and the Germans.

Gustaf, one of André’s sons, was the paternal grandfather of Raoul Wallenberg, whose own father died before he was born in Stockholm in 1912.

Although Wallenberg was not part of the family’s inner circle, his upbringing was like that of the “crown princes.” He, too, traveled and studied abroad, learning several languages and making valuable contacts. Like the others, he was taught a sense of responsibility for his work and for his country.

Unsuccessful as an entrepreneur and bored with the family bank, he was a disappointment to the family until the opportunity arose to rescue what the author terms “the tattered remnants of European Jewry.”

Wallenberg volunteered to save the Hungarian relatives of his Jewish employer, Kalman Lauer. He was likely inspired by his older cousins. Jacob Wallenberg, who would later participate in a plot to kill Hitler, helped some Jews escape from Germany in 1941. Ebba Wallenberg Bonde devoted herself to helping European refugees and “children who were persecuted because of their race.”

As an attaché of the Swedish Embassy, Wallenberg was sent to Budapest in 1944 by the U.S. War Refugee Board and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “Wallenberg broke all rules of conventional diplomacy,” writes Bartal. “He bribed and lied to Gestapo and Hungarian military officers, provided Jews with bogus passports and protection certificates which he designed himself, and even met personally with [Adolf] Eichmann, the man who engineered the worst mass-killing in the history of mankind.”

In 1945 Wallenberg was captured by the Russians and imprisoned in a series of jails and mental hospitals. Bartal treats with searing contempt the Swedish government’s timid, half-hearted efforts to find and rescue him. He places some blame on the United States, too. At first, only his family and friends made genuine efforts to find him. Later he became a cause célèbre for the West. Worldwide pressure was unsuccessfully put on the USSR to release him.

Wallenberg’s fate remains unknown.

While much of “The Empire” may be dull to anyone who’s not fascinated with business and finance, it contains colorful biographical sketches and dramas. Highly significant are many passages demonstrating the role of a powerful and socially conscious family in a small, neutral country in wartime — and the less admirable aspects of that family, often shrouded in secrecy. The Jewish reader, of course, will be most interested in the chapter on Raoul Wallenberg. That chapter is like no other in the book — dramatic, inspiring and finally, tragic.

“The Empire: The Rise of the House of Wallenberg” by David Bartal (192 pages, Dagens Industri, $13.95).


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