On December 7, 1913, Per Johan Anger, a non-Jewish Swedish diplomat who would save thousands of Jews from the Nazis during World War II, was born. Working with Raoul Wallenberg, Anger risked his life in Nazi-occupied Hungary and was recognized in 1981 by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
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Born and raised in the southern Swedish city of Gothenberg, Anger studied law and was drafted after graduating in 1939, just as war was breaking out between the Soviet Union and Finland – followed a few months later, in September, by World War II. In January 1940, Anger traded the military for diplomacy. His first posting was as trainee in the trade section of the Swedish legation in Berlin.
He didn’t end up only dealing with commerce, however. When the mission learned the Nazis were planning to attack Norway and Denmark, he began passing intelligence to Stockholm.
Back in Sweden, in June 1941 Anger became an official member of Sweden’s diplomatic corps, working at the Foreign Ministry trade division and dealing with trade ties between Sweden and Hungary. A year later, he was appointed second secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest, and in November 1942 was transferred to Hungary’s capital.
The Germans invade
While Anger was still cutting his diplomatic teeth, on March 19, 1944, German troops invaded Hungary. The Nazi invasion led to mass deportations of Jews to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland, with most going to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The deportations were overseen by Adolf Eichmann.
The invasion changed everything for the young envoy, as desperate Jews sought help at diplomatic missions in Hungary’s capital. Anger responded by issuing Jews with Swedish travel documents, in order to prevent their deportation or internment. He began with issuing about 700 travel documents, negotiated with the Germans to recognize their bearers as Swedish citizens – and reported to Stockholm about what was happening to Hungary’s Jews.
Hungary’s Jews numbered some 861,000, and that 700 was a drop in the sea. The Swedish legation asked Stockholm for help.
Raoul Wallenberg arrives
Help arrived on July 9. Under diplomatic cover, and with backing from the U.S. War Refugee Board, Raoul Wallenberg came to the Swedish legation with a mission to rescue the Jews.
Aside from creating “safe houses” with welfare and health-care facilities, Wallenberg introduced the Schutzpasse – blue and gold-colored passports – between summer and fall 1944. The two diplomats also saved hundreds of lives during death marches, grabbing Jews from the column and saying they were protected by Sweden. Altogether, the two men are credited with saving tens of thousands of Jewish lives.
The Hungarian National Socialist Party Arrow Cross took power in October 1944, and in January 1945 the Soviet Union invaded. Both Anger and Wallenberg were detained. After three months, Anger was released. Wallenberg was never seen again.
Anger, who continued his diplomatic career after the war, never gave up trying to find his friend and colleague, but in vain.
Years later, Anger recalled that time in his life in an interview with VI magazine: “First then everything was revealed. Mainly by stories from people who managed to escape. We sent home reports of extermination camps, sketches of the gas chambers in Auschwitz ... We became witnesses to what we didn’t think was possible: a systematic extermination of people.”
Based in Vienna in 1956, he also helped thousands of Hungarians cross the border with Austria after the failed uprising against the Soviet government.
Anger received numerous awards. Yad Vashem recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations in 1981, alongside Wallenberg (who was honored in 1963), Oskar Schindler, and others. In 1995, he was awarded a Hungarian Order of Merit, and Israel granted him honorary citizenship in 2000. In his native Sweden, in 2001 he won the Illis Quorum Meruere Labores (For Those Whose Labors Have Deserved It), the highest award the Swedish government can give a citizen.
Anger died in 2002, aged 88. In his memory, Sweden established the Per Anger Prize for initiatives supporting human rights and democracy. In 2014, the recipient of the prize was Nepalese human rights defender Rita Mahato.