Swedish Diplomat Per Anger saved Jews in Budapest

Thousands of Hungarian Jews were rescued from death in Nazi extermination camps thanks to the Swedish diplomat Per Anger.

False Passports

Not only did Per Anger ferry out reports of the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews, he also fashioned false passports to save the lives of potential victims. As the enormity of the calamity became obvious, Sweden posted a special envoy to Budapest, operating under diplomatic cover, the now legendary Raoul Wallenberg. Anger, working hand in glove with Wallenberg, snatched several hundred Jews from forced marches out of Budapest.

Nor was Anger’s heroism restricted to subverting the Holocaust. During the early 1940s, he had already established a reputation for siphoning vital intelligence from Berlin to Stockholm.

Diplomatic Career

Anger’s diplomatic career started in January 1940, when he joined the Swedish delegate to Berlin as a 26-year-old trainee. At great personal risk, he contacted underground movements, and conveyed their warnings of an impending German invasion of Scandinavia to Stockholm.

By the time his bosses alerted Norway, it was already too late. The Oslo government summoned the German military attaché, who denied everything. The next day, Germany overran Norway.

Anger returned to Stockholm in June 1941, and worked in the foreign ministry’s trade section, dealing with Hungary. Impressed by his diligence and perspicacity, Anger’s masters appointed him second secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest, a position he took up on November 26, 1942.

The Righteous

Anger’s colleagues included Hugo Wohl, the Hungarian-Jewish head of a Swedish firm in Budapest; the Swedish legation’s veteran chief, Carl Ivan Danielsson; and the Swedish Red Cross representative, Valdemar Langlet. Together they were to become, in the words of US Senator Tom Lantos, “radiant sparks of humanity that glowed in the darkest of midnights”.

At first, Hungary seemed comparatively peaceful. Anger married his wife, Elena, in 1943, and found time to hunt game in Transylvania. In 1941, Hungary, under the right wing regime of Admiral Horthy, had joined Germany in attacking the Soviet Union. Yet Third Reich pan-Aryan fantasies found little resonance among the Magyar nationalists of Budapest.

Hungary was also the only oasis for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. By 1944 the community numbered nearly 750,000 people. Refugees told Anger of Nazi atrocities. Some camp escapees drew sketches of gas chambers, which Anger forwarded to his superiors in Stockholm.

Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 led some Hungarian politicians to consider signing a separate peace with the Soviet Union. But Hitler would have none of it. Frustrated with Budapest’s vacillations, Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944.

Hungarian Jews

For Hungary’s Jews, this was a catastrophe. They were corralled into ghettos, robbed of their property and forced to wear the yellow star. Next, the Nazi in charge of the murder of Europe’s Jews, Adolph Eichmann, arrived in Budapest, and began rounding up every Jew in sight. Hugo Wohl approached Anger in desperation. The Swedish diplomat instantly issued Wohl with a false provisional Swedish passport. Soon hundreds of Jews followed Wohl’s example, and other legations copied Anger’s initiative, like the Papal Nuncio and the neutral Spanish. Initially, 700 of such false provisional Swedish passports were issued.

Wallenberg in Budapest

But their efforts were a drop in the ocean. By the time Wallenberg arrived in July 1944 – at the instigation of the US War Refugee Board and Sweden’s own Jewish community – Eichmann had sent more than 400,000 Jews to the death camps. A game of cat and mouse ensued. Wallenberg hosted Eichmann at the legation, but the Nazi, while accepting that Hitler was losing the war, insisted on carrying out his “duties”, and ominously warned Wallenberg to avoid “accidents”. Days later, a truck crushed Wallenberg’s car – luckily without him inside.

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Swedish Diplomat Per Anger saved thousands of Jews in Budapest

Meanwhile, Anger, Wallenberg, Langlet and Danielsson set up bogus safe houses throughout Budapest, disguised as Swedish libraries and research institutes.

Next, they started issuing a Schutzpass, or “protective pass”, whose colorful royal Swedish motif persuaded the Nazis and their Hungarian lackeys to release Jews in their charge.

But by November 1944, forced death marches had begun, and Anger and Wallenberg drove up and down the columns, issuing passes and defying German guards by literally snatching Jews from their hands.

In January 1945, Wallenberg bullied a senior German commander into cancelling plans for the wholesale massacre of Budapest’s remaining Jews. Two days later, the victorious Red Army arrived. Wallenberg was arrested as “a foreign spy” on January 17, and was never seen again. Anger, too, was taken into Soviet custody, but released three months later after Swiss intervention. He credited Wallenberg with saving 100,000 Jewish lives.

A Quiet Courage

So what made Per Anger stand up to evil when so many other Europeans remained silent? Aspects of his upbringing suggest clues. He was born in Gothenburg, the eldest of three boys, to an engineer father and a language teacher mother. Theirs was a close-knit family, noted Elizabeth Skoglund in her 1997 biography, A Quiet Courage. Anger’s deeply held Lutheran beliefs helped him through the first crisis in his life, the accidental death of his brother Jan, an air force pilot, in 1936.

Anger studied law at the universities of Stockholm and Uppsala. He graduated in 1939, and took up his Berlin posting after a brief stint in the army.

Swedish Diplomat Per Anger saved thousands of Jews in Budapest
Per Anger, Swedish Passport – Source: USHMM

After returning to Sweden in 1945, he took various overseas appointments – Egypt and Ethiopia during 1946, France from 1953, Austria from 1955, and San Francisco in 1961. In 1966, he was put in charge of Sweden’s international aid program. He became ambassador to Australia in 1970 and Canada in 1976, and won a dream retirement posting – ambassador to the Bahamas – in 1978.

Anger’s natural modesty made him keep Wallenberg’s story alive in speeches and books, while downplaying his own role in wartime Budapest. When, in 1956, he helped those thousands of Hungarians crossing the Austrian border, among them were several Jews whom he had saved in 1944.

Righteous Among The Nations

In 1982 Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum named Anger as one of the “righteous among the nations”, alongside saviors like Oskar Schindler and Wallenberg, and he was awarded honorary citizenship by Israel in September 2000. In 1989 Anger confronted Mikhail Gorbachev about Wallenberg’s whereabouts, but to no avail. Even at home, Anger faced resistance, says Skoglund, as “pusillanimous” bureaucrats tried to muzzle him so as not to upset Russia.

Per Johan Valentin Anger, righteous diplomat, born December 7, 1913; died August 25, 2002

Swedish Diplomat Per Anger


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