The fascinating story of a secret hero who saved thousands of people – and then disappeared in history. Learn about Raoul Wallenberg in this IELTS Reading sample text. Practice your English Reading ability, or improve your IELTS skills). 

Raoul Wallenberg was a typical hero, who is praised around the world for being the saviour of thousands of Jewish people during the Second World War. He has been honoured with awards and streets were named after him all over the world. He is an honorary citizen of Israel, Canada, the USA and Australia. Yet he has never collected any of these awards, nor has he visited any of the countries which honour him. In fact, no one has seen Raoul Wallenberg since 1945. He was declared legally dead in late 2016, having been presumed dead for decades. He was last seen at the end of World War 2. Since then, the circumstances of his death have been unclear, and countries have been pointing the finger of blame at each other.

As well as being described as an archetype of a hero, Wallenberg was also a typical cosmopolitan.  He was born into a diplomatic family in Sweden and raised by his mother and grandmother, but as soon as he was old enough, he began to travel abroad. He used his adventures as a learning curve: hitchhiking across the USA, he practiced the arts of “diplomacy and tact“; studying architecture in Paris, he soon began navigating the world of business in places like South Africa and Israel.

It was on this trip that he learned a lesson which was probably his most difficult, that of the existence of anti-Semitism. Prejudice against Jews was common all over Europe, but especially in Hungary. Wallenberg’s Jewish colleague found it increasingly difficult to travel there from their office in Sweden, so Wallenberg went on his behalf. By 1944, the Nazis had taken over Hungary and were sending Jews to death camps every day. The Second World War had forced millions of European people to flee their homes, and the US government set up the War Refugee Board to respond to this crisis. The Board contacted Wallenberg to get his help. He was the perfect candidate. Not only was he fluent in many languages, but he had also observed Nazi bureaucracy first-hand during previous trips to France and Germany. The simplest reason for his hiring was probably the fact that he was a Swedish citizen who was in Hungary, which allowed him greater freedom of movement than most others enjoyed.

Wallenberg was able to save thousands of Jews. Bribery of Nazi guards and officials helped. He also put Jews up in several fake buildings around Hungary, designed to look like protected Swedish institutions. However, the main reason for his success was the Schutzpass – official-looking, but fake, Swedish passports which he forged and distributed among Hungarian Jews. Anyone with a Schutzpass could claim to be a citizen of Sweden (a neutral country during World War 2), and could therefore avoid deportation. The height of his bravery occurred when he threw dozens of passports to Jews on a train bound for the notorious death-camp Auschwitz, with guards shooting at him the whole time. Just before disappearing, he indirectly saved 70,000 Jews by persuading the authorities against a plan to destroy the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, with the residents inside.

Wallenberg was last seen surrounded by Russian soldiers when Budapest fell in early 1945. The official cause of his death came from a Soviet (Russian) government claim that he died of a heart attack in one of their prisons 2 years later. However, the explanation was so flimsy that, in 1991, Russia itself had to establish an official inquiry into how he died. This came after years of speculation and research into Wallenberg’s fate, and it took place alongside a separate inquiry, led by his half-brother. No definite answer has ever emerged, but by 2016 one thing was clear: Raoul Wallenberg was no longer alive. It was just a matter of his death being made official. The Swedish Tax Agency did this, putting the year of his death down as 1952, as per their official procedure of declaring a person dead 5 years after he or she has disappeared.

In spite of the many streets and districts which now bear his name, probably the most symbolic memorial to Wallenberg is a simple briefcase. At different locations around the world there are replicas of the briefcase in which he held plans for saving more Jews when he was arrested. Some of the people he saved went on to become politicians and chemists. Their work to improve the world around them could be seen less as a testament to him, but as a continuation of his spirit and bravery.

[Images: Raoul Wallenberg (Public Domain)
Raoul Wallenberg briefcase (by Holgar.Ellgaard, via Wikimedia, CC-BY-3.0)]

IELTS Reading sample questions

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Complete the following statements using NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS from the text.

1. Wallenberg’s travels taught him …………..

2. Wallenberg travelled to Hungary because his ………….. was unable to do so.

3. To deal with the crisis in Europe, the War Refugee Board was …………..

4. Wallenberg had direct experience of …………..

5. Because of his citizenship, Wallenberg was able to travel around Hungary with …………..


The reading passage contains 6 paragraphs, A to F.
Choose a suitable title for each paragraph, from options
(i) (vii).

[NOTE: one option will not be used]

(i) Wallenberg’s legacy
(ii) A man of the world
Responding with experience
Crisis in Hungary
An uncertain end
A lost hero remembered
(vii) Manipulating the system

This is an IELTS Reading sample test, which can be interesting and available for all English language learners, from Intermediate and above.
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