Train yard photo taken by Tom from inside Wallenberg's car. Wallenberg stands at right, hands clasped behind him, overseeing his "Book of Life."

By Thomas Veres

I’m a professional photographer. For many years, my offices in New York were 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
Raoul Wallenberg, a young Swedish architect, had been sent to Budapest in July for the sole purpose of saving lives. By then, U.S. government intelligence could no longer pretend they didn’t know what was happening to the Jews of Europe. The War Refugee Board decided to send someone from a neutral country to facilitate some sort of rescue of the Jews of Hungary. Wallenberg volunteered for the job. His work had taken him throughout Europe, and he’d seen firsthand what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. The Swedish government joined in the effort, and he was sent to Budapest through the Swedish Legation, although he’d never been trained as a diplomat.

What makes a man leave the safety of a neutral country to take on personally the Nazis? I can’t tell you. All I can tell you is that 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 cancelled. 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 30s, 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 schutzpasses (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 that 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 Josefvarosi Station. Bring your camera."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus