After leaving Ann Arbor, Wallenberg lived and worked in South Africa for six months, then went to Palestine, where he worked as an apprentice to a friend of his grandfather, a Jewish banker from Holland. Gustav was still hopeful that his grandson’s future lay in the family’s financial empire.
In her book, Wallenberg: Missing Hero, Hungarian-born journalist Kati Marton notes that this apprenticeship turned out to be an education of a different sort. Once-prosperous middle-class Jews from German cities were pouring into Palestine, “reduced to ragged beggars by the Nuremberg laws.”
Raoul met many Jewish refugees at the kosher boardinghouse where he was staying and through his Dutch mentor. He heard their stories of being stripped of all rights by the German Reich and transformed into nonpersons. Marton believes “the impression this humbled segment of humanity made on him was to be permanent.”
In the spring of 1937, Gustav Wallenberg died suddenly. Raoul lost not only his surrogate father but also the mentor who had shaped his fledgling career. With his grandfather’s death, Kati Marton writes, “in a society that still required sponsors, Raoul Wallenberg, groomed for success, had none.” For the next four years, Wallenberg floundered. His American degree did not qualify him to work as an architect in Sweden. He started two businesses, but neither was successful.
He remained profoundly concerned about the Jews in Nazi Germany, maintaining contact with refugees who had escaped to Sweden and anonymously providing a food subsidy for one needy family.
In 1941, Jacob Wallenberg, Raoul’s uncle and godfather, set him up in Stockholm with Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian who ran an export-import firm trading between Stockholm and Central Europe. As a Jew, Lauer was finding it increasingly difficult to travel to Hungary, the main market for his specialty foods. Raoul Wallenberg took over the firm’s foreign division. His amazing ability to learn languages made him invaluable to Lauer, and he began traveling frequently to Budapest, a city he quickly grew to love.