The Basics

Miri Margolin
Emancipation Hall

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish humanitarian who worked at his country's legation in Budapest during World War II and used his diplomatic status to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews threatened by the occupying Nazi forces and their Hungarian collaborators. His determination and accomplishments in the face of great opposition and personal danger have made him a figure honored around the world.

Born into a prominent and wealthy family near Stockholm on August 4, 1912, Raoul Wallenberg came to the United States in 1931 to study architecture at the University of Michigan. When he returned to Sweden and was unable to find work as an architect, he obtained positions with a Swedish firm in Cape Town, South Africa, and the Holland Bank in Haifa (today in northern Israel). In 1936, he returned to his native country and joined an export-import company owned by a Hungarian Jew, Kalman Lauer. After Hungary's adoption of anti-Jewish policies in 1938, Wallenberg learned Hungarian and in 1941 began frequent trips to Budapest, where Lauer could no longer travel easily.

When the persecution and deportation of Hungarian Jews became widely known in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board to take action to rescue Jews from Nazi extermination. The Board's representative in Sweden, Ivor Olsen, identified Wallenberg as a person who could lead this effort in Hungary with funding and assistance from the U.S. Department of State. Wallenberg agreed to go to Budapest to undertake this task.

The Swedish government assisted by designating Wallenberg as a first secretary in the Swedish Legation in Budapest. Wallenberg worked with a colleague in the Swedish Legation and with Jewish organizations in Budapest to save Jewish lives. One of his creative innovations was to issue what Germans called Shutz-Passe (protective passports), which identified individuals as Swedish subjects, and thus not eligible for deportation to death camps. Though the documents were not legally valid, they did save the lives of many Hungarian Jews. With funds provided by the United States government, Wallenberg also rented 32 buildings and declared them Swedish diplomatic facilities, thus protected by diplomatic immunity. Eventually, an estimated 13,000 people were housed there; among them was the young Tom Lantos, who would later become the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

For his own safety, Wallenberg slept in a different house each night. As the Soviet Army reached the outskirts of Budapest, and it was clear that the Nazis would lose Hungary, German military authorities planned to destroy the central Budapest Ghetto and kill the estimated 70,000 Jews there. Wallenberg learned of the plan and sent a message to SS General August Schmidthuber, commander in Budapest, telling him that if he destroyed the ghetto, he (Wallenberg) would personally see that Schmidthuber was tried for murder and genocide in the War Crimes Tribunal being planned after the end of the war.

In January 1945, the Soviet Army liberated the city of Budapest and Nazi troops withdrew to the West. Wallenberg was directed by the Soviet commander in Hungary to come to the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen, where his headquarters was located. The day he left Budapest, Soviet leaders issued a secret order for Wallenberg's arrest. He was taken to Moscow's infamous Lubyanka Prison, and he was never seen outside prison after that time. In 1956, Soviet officials requested a report on the fate of Wallenberg. The report said he had died of a heart attack in 1947. It also indicated that he had been arrested for spying for Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. Although Soviet officials said he had died in 1947, reports that Wallenberg was still alive in the Soviet Gulag were circulating until as late as 1991. Family members and others concerned about his fate continued to press the Soviet Government for information. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, additional intelligence information was made public, but no satisfactory explanation of his fate has been forthcoming.

In October 1981, Raoul Wallenberg was made an honorary citizen of the United States with the adoption of legislation introduced by Representative Lantos and signed by President Ronald Reagan, and he was honored on a U.S. postage stamp in 1997.

The Bust

The smaller-than-life-size bust seems to capture Raoul Wallenberg's modesty and slim physique. Wallenberg's head is positioned looking straight ahead and his facial expression is solemn. The sculptor, Miri Margolin, depicted the subject's strong nose and showed him in a business suit and tie. The surface is enlivened by the tool marks in the original rough clay from which the bronze was cast. The shaft of polished Swedish granite, on which the bust sits, was a gift from the government of Sweden.

In June 1994, Congress adopted a resolution "to accept a bust of Raoul Wallenberg and to place the bust in an appropriate location in the Capitol" (H. Con. Res. 222). The bust was donated by Mrs. Lillian Hoffman of Denver, Colorado, the organizer of the Colorado Committee of Concern for Soviet Jewry and chairperson of the Raoul Wallenberg National Commission. On November 2, 1995, it was dedicated at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda; the unveiling was performed by Ms. Nina Lagergren, Raoul Wallenberg's sister, as well as Mrs. Lantos, the sculptor, and the donor. Remarks were made by the Speakers of the Hungarian parliament, the Knesset of Israel, and the Swedish parliament in addition to members of the congressional leadership.

After being displayed in the Capitol's first-floor small House rotunda for 14 years, the bust was placed in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center in April 2009, as approved by the Joint Committee on the Library.

The Sculptor

Israeli sculptor Miri Margolin, the aunt of former Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, created the bronze bust. Born in Poland, she immigrated to Israel with her family in 1920. Originally a ceramic artist, she began creating portraits to be cast in bronze late in her career; her first depicted her nephew who died commanding the rescue of Jewish hostages held in Entebbe, Uganda. She then created a series of portrait busts of Israeli leaders and international peace makers, including David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and President Jimmy Carter. She created the portrait of Wallenberg after meeting his half brother and being given photographs of him from which to work.