The Envoy

The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II


By Alex Kershaw

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Based on recently released archives and extensive interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors The Envoy is the inspiring and unforgettable story of a lost hero, his greatest adversary, and the men and women who were saved by his courage and sacrifice.

December 1944. Soviet and German troops fight from house to house in the shattered, corpse-strewn suburbs of Budapest. Crazed Hungarian fascists join with die-hard Nazis to slaughter Jews day and night, turning the Danube blood-red. In less than six months, thirty-eight-year-old SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann has sent over half a million Hungarians to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Now all that prevents him from liquidating Europe's last Jewish ghetto is an unarmed Swedish diplomatic envoy named Raoul Wallenberg.

The Envoy is the stirring tale of how one man made the greatest difference in the face of untold evil. The legendary Oscar Schindler saved hundreds, but Raoul Wallenberg did what no other individual or nation managed to do: He saved more than 100,000 Jewish men, women, and children from extermination.

Written with Alex Kershaw's customary narrative verve, The Envoy is a fast-paced, nonfiction thriller that brings to life one of the darkest and yet most inspiring chapters of twentieth century history. It is an epic for the ages.


The Bedford Boys
The Longest Winter
The Few
Escape from the Deep
Blood and Champagne
Jack London


Part One

IT WAS A SNOWY TUESDAY as the Mercedes staff cars pulled in, one after the other, wheels crunching the gravel on the driveway that led past a circular flower bed and to the entrance of a large, imposing villa at 56-58 Am Grossen Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin.1 Senior bureaucrats of the Third Reich, middle-aged SS officers, and Gestapo officials then stepped out of the cars and hurried inside. Around noon that day—January 20, 1942—they entered a large dining room, where they were soon seated at assigned places at a long table. Thirty-eight-year-old SS General Reinhard Heydrich was already waiting for his distinguished guests.
As a general in the SS and chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), Heydrich enjoyed enormous power in the Third Reich. He pulled all the levers of terror, being in charge of the Gestapo, the Nazi Security Service (SD) agency, and the Criminal Police (Kripo) agency. A musically gifted and well-educated former Catholic, he knew he could count on the obedience and win the cooperation of even the most recalcitrant of Hitler's senior bureaucrats. To cross him was to risk fatal repercussions, which many of his enemies had discovered in the last decade as he had risen inexorably through the ranks of loyal and dedicated Nazis in the RSHA.2
The meeting began as Heydrich, with his piercing blue eyes and aquiline nose, sat down in a leather chair. In all, fifteen men were at the conference, eight of whom had doctorates—not an uneducated group by any means.3 Also present was Heydrich's fellow Austrian, the head of the Gestapo's Section IVB for Jewish Affairs, thirty-six-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann. Among the assembled "popes" of the Third Reich, he looked like an attentive secretary, a junior clerk even. It was his job today to take the minutes—at a top secret meeting that would determine the fate of Europe's eleven-million-odd Jews.
Eichmann had worked for several months to arrange this conference and had prepared a detailed agenda for the attendees. But now he was starting to feel the accumulated fatigue of so many months of hard work. And last night had been taxing indeed. He had traveled by staff car to Berlin, along dark and slushy roads, hundreds of miles from Theresienstadt, a so-called model camp used to fool international Red Cross inspectors into believing that the Nazis were not killing undesirables in vast numbers—the mentally handicapped, Gypsies, Poles, the list went on and on, growing with each year of Hitler's tenure.
Heydrich began the meeting by saying that the Fuhrer had entrusted him with a grave responsibility. He had been ordered to bring about a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.4
"Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution, the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East," continued Heydrich. "Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival."5
None of the men around the table was in any doubt what "treated accordingly" meant.
Heydrich spoke for about an hour before opening up the meeting to questions. Several concerns were raised. When would the final solution begin? Should it not start with mass evacuations from the crowded, diseased ghettoes in Poland? How exactly would the millions be shipped to the so-called resettlement camps? Would there be allowances made for Jews working in key war industries who had irreplaceable skills?
Some of the more zealous bureaucrats in attendance believed that half-Jews, though clearly not "real" Jews, should be killed too now that Eichmann's department of Jewish Affairs had solved the problems of how to get rid of undesirables in vast numbers and dispose of the corpses. In the East, gassings of Russian POWs had been highly effective. And at Auschwitz, an amethyst-blue crystal called Cyclon B, produced by the German industrial giant I.G. Farben, had proved even more deadly.6 Pellets reacted instantly when released into the air, producing hydrogen cyanide. In theory, there was now no limit to how many people the Nazis could exterminate.7
It was after 1 p.m. Servants brought in refreshments. The attendees drank and ate and talked about finally ending the Jewish problem not just in Germany, but in all of Europe, including Britain and the Soviet Union, two enemy territories that would be finally subdued, all in good time, and from which all Jews would be deported as well. The meeting formally ended after ninety minutes, with Heydrich and the Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller being last to leave the large dining room. They asked the thorough Eichmann to share a drink with them. Soon the three men were beside a fire, warming themselves. Eichmann would never forget how honored he felt to be asked to join these two giants of the Third Reich for a celebratory tipple. "After the conference," he remembered, "Heydrich, Muller, and little me sat cozily around a fireplace. I saw for the first time Heydrich smoking a cigar or cigarette, something I never saw; and he drank cognac, which I hadn't seen for ages. Normally he didn't drink alcohol."8
Heydrich might have appeared relaxed, but he was not about to make an elementary mistake that might come back to haunt him. He made sure Eichmann understood that he was not to write up the minutes verbatim. He wanted the discussion sanitized, placed in appropriately euphemistic language, so there would be no explicit mention of mass murder. As Eichmann recalled: "Certain over-plain talk and jargon expressions had to be rendered into office language by me."9
It had been a most satisfactory day, surely worth a toast or two. And so Eichmann, Heydrich, and Muller refilled their glasses with cognac and proceeded to get drunk.10 "After a while," recalled Eichmann, "we got up on the chairs and drank a toast, then on the table and then round and round—on the chairs and on the table again. Heydrich taught it to us. It was an old north German custom . . . We sat around peacefully after our Wannsee Conference, not just talking shop but giving ourselves a rest after so many taxing hours."11
Eichmann had no qualms. "I felt something of the satisfaction of Pi-late, because I felt entirely innocent of any guilt. The leading figures of the Reich at the time had spoken at the Wannsee Conference, the 'Popes' had given their orders; it was up to me to obey, and that is what I bore in mind over the future years."12
Orders were orders. His oath of allegiance to Hitler, the Reich, and the SS brotherhood meant that he had to do what was necessary. He had been instructed, as had Heydrich, to deal once and for all with the Jewish problem. This seemingly bland and rather obtuse RSHA bureaucrat, Adolf Eichmann, would be the chief administrator of "the greatest single genocide in history."13

On the Run
THE HERMANS CAREFULLY picked off the six-inch-wide yellow stars of David on the left chest of their coats, making sure that no telltale yellow threads were visible—even the thinnest wisp of cotton might be spotted by a vigilant SS man or a collaborator. Twelve-year-old Vera Herman later remembered watching her mother remove the six-pointed stars of cadmium yellow: "Our lives literally hung on removing every one of those threads."1
The Hermans—father Emil, wife Margit, and their daughter, Vera—left their latest refuge, a house owned by Vera's youngest uncle, a respected pharmacist, and in complete secrecy, terrified they would be stopped, they made their way quietly at dusk through the streets of Banska Bystrica to its railway station. Were they being watched? Had someone betrayed them to the SS? They could not be sure.
Margit knew they had no choice but to leave. The Nazis were about to begin deporting the Jews who still lived in the small town in central Slovakia, some hundred miles due north of Budapest. The Hermans either stayed in Banska Bystrica "like sitting ducks" or they took a chance. Margit also knew that taking risks was not in her husband Emil's nature. He was a precise, methodical doctor who had prided himself on careful and rigorous diagnosis. "If taking a chance had been his thing," recalled Vera, "we would have been in the United States by then, because we were on the American quota. We had received our quota numbers. The only thing we couldn't get was a valid passport." Others might have tried to leave the country without one, but Vera's father, a physician as well as a proud officer in the Czechoslovakian National Guard's elite cavalry regiment, hadn't wanted to break the law.
They waited nervously on a platform and boarded a train, just another family going into the country for a short break from the war, or so they hoped it appeared.2 It was a local milk train that seemed to stop at every telephone pole. Thankfully, they did not look stereotypically Jewish. They were fair-skinned, and Emil and Vera blue-eyed. Vera, in fact, looked more Aryan than Jewish, with her dark blonde hair, held in braids, which was the fashion for girls her age at the time. "We blended in," she recalled. "We were all thin. My father was about five six, my mother, around five foot. I was tall for my age at five foot two. My mother and I wore little babushka scarves."3
Some time later, they got off at a small village. On the platform, they looked to their left, as they had been instructed. There, at the far end of the platform, stood a tall young man. They began to follow him, out of the station and into the country.4 Mercifully, they had not been stopped and asked for their papers. They approached a dilapidated farmhouse, more like a barn than a home, shared by three generations of a family and their small animals.5 It was around 11 p.m. when the young man placed a ladder against a wall. They could see an open window above. He told them to climb up the ladder and into the attic—their new hiding place.
"Please be very careful," said the young man. "Don't move around too much because my mother-in-law is here, and she's a Nazi sympathizer. If she finds out about you, you won't be here very long."6 The young man had not expected his mother-in-law to visit. He looked as disappointed as the Hermans as they climbed the ladder. Clearly, as with so many other collaborators in Nazi Europe, she wouldn't think twice about reporting them and her own son-in-law to the Nazis.7
FOR MORE THAN THREE YEARS, the Hermans had evaded capture in Nazi-occupied Europe, moving from one cramped attic to another, hiding in dark forests, hunched together in freezing crawl spaces and dank cellars, sometimes starving, never losing hope but always afraid. They had been on the run, a step ahead of the Nazis, since the fall of 1939. "My memory of that period," recalled Vera, "was of constant fear, of total uncertainty." There were times when she had wanted it all to end because it was just too much to be always so afraid.8
In the spring and summer of 1942, the Hermans had hidden in the forests of the Tatra Mountains, and as winter approached they had found refuge in Banska Bystrica, where they had lived in an attic from December 1942 to April 1943 and then, until recently, in a cellar.9 Through it all, Vera had kept a diary in a small notebook. On the flyleaf of the notebook, she had jotted a refrain from a contemporary Hungarian ballad about the hardships of hiding: "Egyre konny, konny, konny; egyre menj, menj, menj; egyre fuss, fuss, fuss; pihenore sohse juss!" "Always tears, tears, tears; always flee, flee, flee; always run, run, run; but never find a respite!"10
The bound notebook was all she had been able to save from her old schoolbag before she had left her expansive, tastefully decorated home in a luxury apartment building, with large stone balconies and marble stairways, in a small town in Czechoslovakia in 1939. She had begun writing in it in 1942, and had tried to make an entry in it every day. Jotting in it relieved the boredom of waiting for hours, sometimes days, hidden in one place or another. "The Hungarian ballad was something that I would hear when we were hiding out in the woods," she recalled. "There was once a pub within hearing distance, and when the singing got loud and drinks got more plentiful, I heard it."11
In November 1943, the family's luck, it seemed, had finally run out and they learned that they, along with other Jews known by the Nazis to be living in Banska Bystrica, would soon be deported. They had been betrayed to the authorities by a local collaborator. Before the inevitable herding onto trains got under way, four men had arrived at their hiding place, part of a Jewish "property confiscation team" that included an SS officer who had made Vera's father sign papers that meant they were stripped of everything of value that they owned. Thin and fragile Vera had wondered what these cruel men could possibly want from her parents. What could they confiscate? They had nothing material of value.
The SS man with the confiscation team wore an immaculate uniform. His boots were so polished that Vera could see her reflection in them. He was handsome, the kind of young man who could easily have gone home, she thought, and taken off his black uniform and gotten down on the floor to play with his own children.12 But still he and the others took what they could, seizing a beautifully embroidered tablecloth that Vera's mother had managed to save so that she could lay it down on the forest floor and use it for picnics, a brightly colored reminder of the lives they had lost. The team also tried to take a pair of boots, but Vera watched her mother hold onto them fiercely, and the men finally left with just the tablecloth and an old pair of shoes, all that the family possessed other than the clothes they were wearing.13
A few days after this visit from the confiscation team, the Hermans had learned that the SS had kidnapped local Jewish women aged eighteen to twenty-five to be used as sex slaves on the Eastern Front. The SS simply banged on doors in the middle of the night and seized terrified, screaming women, pulling them from their parents' and husbands' arms. Vera knew two sisters who were taken. One was a newlywed. The other had been born with an inverted hip and limped but was considered too beautiful to be left behind.14
The Hermans knew they would in all likelihood be next because they were alien Jews—Jews from another country. They had just one option: flee to Hungary, the last country in Europe from which Jews had not been deported en masse to the death camps, although sixty-thousand-odd had been killed in forced labor battalions. But did they still have the energy and will to make the dangerous crossing into Hungary? Vera's forty-five-year-old father, Emil, had begun to tire of the constant stress of trying to stay a step ahead of the Nazis. Their years on the run had worn down this once proud and ebullient doctor's strength and stamina.15
Emil always tried to put on a brave face. Vera had seen him cry only once, when he thought she was not looking, his shoulders shaking as he looked out of a window and realized how desperate their situation was.16 "By now, he was, perhaps, just content to be a sitting duck," she recalled. "But mothers in the Holocaust were not inclined to be sitting ducks."17
Margit, Vera's forty-one-year-old mother, had heard about an underground railroad: peasants and partisans who could take Jews across the border into Hungary and all the way to Budapest. Margit didn't have a contact in the organization, but she was determined to get in touch with it, no matter how. At great risk, she knocked on doors, asked around, ignored cruel rebuffs, and finally discovered someone who would help her. And that was how the family now came to be in the attic above a Nazi sympathizer's farmhouse.
THE HERMANS HID IN THE ATTIC and tried to be as quiet as possible. To her horror, Vera discovered rats scurrying around the attic. Their frantic scratching interrupted the happy chatter of young children in a room below. She was worried that the rats might attack her father's balding head, so she wrapped her scarf around it for protection.18
The Hermans spent the night and the following day in the attic. Unrelenting rain lashed against the barn's roof. When they finally climbed down from their hiding place, they were drenched. They started walking with the man who had hidden them but didn't get far before they were bogged down. "We sank into the mud, to mid-calf, and we literally had to lift each foot out to take the next step," remembered Vera. "I was just so exhausted that I wanted to sit down in the mud and lean against one of the trees and take a nap. I said that to my mother, but she wasn't impressed."19
They followed the young man through the woods, but then he spotted a light in a building that was usually dark. Something was wrong. He lost his nerve, not wanting to be caught with three Jews, and scurried away, leaving the Hermans alone in the dark forest. The rain still pelted down.20
Margit ran after the young man and Vera watched, astonished at her mother's speed.
"You have children of your own," Margit screamed at the young man. "Are you going to let this one die?"21
No. He wasn't. The young man said they would try again and took the Hermans back to the farmhouse. Forty-eight hours later, he collected them and they tried to escape Czechoslovakia once more. This time, the man led them along winding paths through a dense forest until they found themselves near the border with Hungary, and he directed them toward the local Hungarian railroad station.
The Hermans took the first train to Budapest.
Vera sat looking out the window, trying to look as "normal as possible" but feeling as if she were "going to explode" at any moment.
Did we really make it? Vera asked herself. When are we going to get caught?
Finally, the train pulled into Budapest. Germans, green-uniformed Arrow Cross men (Hungarian Nazis), and Hungarian soldiers crowded the platforms. From the train station, the Hermans set out for the Central Jewish Agency. They passed through the streets of Pest. Domes, spires, turrets, and cupolas jostled for attention. Balconies boasted bizarre mythological figures. Many buildings had a gaudy confidence with their imitation marble, fake bronze, art deco stained glass, and peeling stucco walls in every pastel shade imaginable.
At the Central Jewish Agency, someone consulted a roster of Jews willing to take in other Jews and directed the Hermans to a family in Pest that had two girls, one of whom was about Vera's age.22
The Hermans had finally made it to Hungary, "a promised land for Jews on the run; the only place where you could be a Jew and stay alive."23 Their escape had brought them a few more months of survival: "a miracle [that] we," recalled Vera, "at the time could appreciate more than the native Jewish population."24
Vera and her family joined three hundred thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe who had already made it to Hungary. Despite the introduction of ever more punitive anti-Semitic laws under his quarter-century rule, Admiral Horthy had not agreed to liquidate these or his own country's Jews, who constituted much of the middle class. After almost four years of genocide, the Hungarian Jews, who made up 5 percent of the population, still lived in relative safety.
Most Hungarian Jews in fact felt utterly assimilated in Hungary, and many were fierce Magyar nationalists in a country that had been deeply scarred by the humiliation of defeat in the First World War and then the subsequent dismemberment under the Treaty of Trianon, in which two-thirds of the nation's territory had been lost.
Despite the resentments of a large, uneducated feudal class whose prejudices and hatreds were easily aroused, the Jews had nevertheless enjoyed an extraordinary prominence in the nation's cultural and economic affairs, being especially prevalent in such professions as law, journalism, medicine, and academia. In the 1920s, an astonishing half of all Hungary's lawyers were Jewish.25
Horthy's own views were common among Hungary's elites at the time: "As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad. Since, however, one of the most important tasks of the government is to raise the standard of living, i.e., we have to acquire wealth, it is impossible, in a year or two, to eliminate the Jews, who have everything in their hands, and to replace them with incompetent, unworthy, mostly big-mouthed elements, for we should become bankrupt. This requires a generation at least."26
Although they had been gradually pauperized and their civil rights stripped from them, the Hungarian Jews were for the most part confident in early 1944 that nothing apocalyptic would happen to them. As Vera recalled: "They said: 'It happened in Germany and in Czechoslovakia, but it is never going to happen in Hungary.' They said this even though they knew that Jews [in labor brigades] had already been deported from the countryside. But it was not going to happen in Budapest, where Jews had been living for a thousand years."27
The Hermans, by contrast, knew only too well what could happen to Budapest's Jews: Vera's grandparents had already been sent to a death camp, revealed after the war as Auschwitz.28 They were among an estimated 90 percent of the prewar Jewish population—263,000 people—who were killed in the Final Solution in Czechoslovakia.

THE MERCEDES STAFF CARS passed through an entrance into the vast concentration camp of Mauthausen, situated on the northern bank of the Danube in upper Austria. One after another the SS officers stepped out of the cars and headed inside an SS barracks. The most ruthless and efficient mass murderers in all Nazi-occupied Europe, they were about to be briefed on how they were going to complete the Final Solution.
As elsewhere in the vast gulag of Nazi concentration camps, it was just another day in Mauthausen. In a quarry in one section of the camp, emaciated Jews, communists, homosexuals, Gypsies, and any other so-called enemies of the Third Reich were being worked to death on the infamous Stairs of Death. Inmates carried rough blocks of stone, weighing more than a hundred pounds, up 186 uneven, often slippery and icy steps. Over and over, they climbed them, until they slipped or fell to their deaths. Today, as usual, prisoners collapsed and fell back, knocking others over, falling into each other like dominoes. So it went, from dawn until dusk.
The SS guards at Mauthausen quickly grew bored, even by this frequent spectacle, and would create their own sport, forcing inmates to race each other up the steps and then placing the survivors at the edge of a cliff, known as the Parachute Wall. At gunpoint, Jews and other inmates would then be given a quintessentially Nazi choice—be shot or push the person in front of them off the cliff.1
As Adolf Eichmann and his men gathered, they had every reason to be confident yet again of success. Indeed, Eichmann had already carried out orders from his superiors—SS Reich Leader Heinrich Himmler, RSHA Chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and the Gestapo boss Heinrich Muller—with extreme diligence, not to mention impressive results, in Poland, Romania, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Slovakia, and Austria.2
This cold March morning in Mauthausen, Eichmann reportedly gave a pep talk to his men. Time was of the essence, he stressed. In a week, a new operation vital to the survival of the Reich would begin: the German military occupation of Hungary, code-named Operation Margarethe. Eichmann's men would follow in the footsteps of the occupying German forces and then set about removing the country's million-odd Jews, the last significant population in Europe. The cleansing of Hungary would be fast and systematic.3 From east to west, Hungary would be rendered "Jew clean." Each province would be cleared of Jews, with the capital, Budapest, saved until last. This final operation of the Final Solution would be completed in a matter of weeks, not months.
"Now the turn of Hungary has come," said Eichmann. "It will be a deportation surpassing every preceding operation in magnitude."4
"SEND DOWN THE MASTER IN PERSON," Heinrich Himmler had commanded when told of the Nazi plans to occupy Hungary.5 "Comb the country from east to west! Begin with the eastern provinces, which the Russians are approaching. See to it that nothing like the Warsaw ghetto revolt is repeated in any way."6


On Sale
Oct 26, 2010
Page Count
336 pages
Da Capo Press

Alex Kershaw

About the Author

Alex Kershaw is the author of the widely acclaimed bestsellers The Bedford Boys, The Longest Winter, The Few, and Escape from the Deep, among others. He lives in Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author