The raincoat that spoke for freedom

This is the story about a raincoat and its brave owner. A humble man whom never spoke about his actions but whose efforts helped saved thousands of lives in Budapest during the final months of World War 2.  This is also the story of how the raincoat ended up in Stockholm, via Australia.

By Jessica Nilsson Williams

Dr Miklos Magasdi

Miklos wearing his raincoat

There are some people whose stories should be told. Dr Miklos Magasdi is one of them. I have been fortunate to hear his story, as told by his daughter, Marina Hamilton-Craig. And I played a part in bequeathing and couriering this most important raincoat to the Army Museum in Stockholm.

The story of Miklos and his raincoat begins in Budapest at the turn of the last century, goes via Adelaide and ends up in Stockholm, Sweden in 2016. Born in 1899 in Budapest, Miklos Magasdi was educated in Hungary, becoming an economist by profession. During the Second World War, he worked at the Swedish Embassy in Budapest. This is where he met Raoul Wallenberg, who served as Sweden’s Special Envoy to Budapest between July and December 1944. Together with his team at the Swedish Embassy, Wallenberg led the secret work of issuing Swedish protective passports (so-called shutzpasses) and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory in order to rescue Hungarian-Jewish citizens from Nazi terror. Miklos Magasdi’s title at the Swedish Embassy was Chief of Protocol, but he was often known as “The Negotiator”, as he was a negotiator for temporary housing (on Swedish soil) and transport visas for endangered, mostly Jewish persons. One of Miklos’ other roles was to supply food, mostly bread to holding areas, where people under threat were kept, while passes and travel were arranged for them. He was, for this reason, sometimes also called “The Baker”.

Miklo’s sister-in-law, Agnes Kornis, also worked with Mr Wallenberg. She is today 98 years of age and lives in Adelaide,

Agnes and Marina in Adelaide, 2015
Agnes and Marina in Adelaide, 2015

Australia.  Agnes was one of a group of volunteer ladies who typed the very first Shutzpasses late at night. She and her sister Mimi were called by a Baroness late on 6 June, 1944, by who asked ‘could they type’. Later that evening, they were picked up by a car and taken to what turned out to be the Swedish embassy. Other ladies were also there, typing what was to become the first Shutzpasses. The Baroness’ maid brought in dinner for them, all beautifully packed and served, Agnes Kornis recalls. She says “Miklos was truly heroic during those terrible times.” He had been an army officer, and all his life had a certain presence and authority, which he used successfully for his humanitarian work. There was a certain arrogance and the skills of command, which he probably employed with success when in danger.

Agnes also recalls Raoul Wallenberg quite well. “He was 34, very formal, very elegant, tall, rather pockmarked skin. He was never friendly or jolly. Very polite, always opened the door or stood up, but never familiar, always very reserved.”

Marina told me she understood from her mother’s recollections that it was Miklos who actually had the idea that the Swedish Embassy supplied Shutzpass. It was also he who often personally distributed them, as Mr Wallenberg did not speak fluent Hungarian, being a Swede: “My mother used to say that many people who thought they met Wallenberg, actually met Miklos,” said Marina Hamilton-Craig. The raincoat played a central part in handing out the shutzpasses. Miklos used that raincoat as a non-verbal signal to indicate whether it was safe to hand over the passes or not. This is how it was used:

Says Marina: “My father kept his old raincoat coat locked in the boot of his car for many years. I think he was afraid my mother would throw it out, as it was rather frayed and old. But he never wanted to part with it. The only comments he would ever make is: That is the raincoat which can talk.”

When Miklos entered a restaurant or similar public place to hand out a Shutzpass the raincoat was used to alert the subject to a security code: If he wore the coat buttoned and belted it meant it was not safe to meet and the meeting needed to be deferred. If he wore it over his shoulders it meant: “Stay as you are, I shall approach you when safe…do not approach me.” If he wore it folded over his arm, Miklos would approach the subject, and leave a folded newspaper in which the Shutzpass was usually hidden. He would ask for a light, bend over and leave the newspaper containing the precious papers on the table. In his pocket he would have another newspaper, and he’d walk out carrying that.

In the last year of her life, Marina’s mother, Eva, related some stories to her, as she felt some of this should be recorded. “For example, one day when my father was handing out a number of passes and one person did not step forward for his, so my father looked around, locked eyes with a young man who more or less fitted the photograph/ description on the pass and loudly repeated the name and held it towards the young man, who finally realized and accepted the passport. It almost certainly saved his life”. Miklos later told Eva that this young man fleetingly pressed my father’s hand as he took the precious document, which Miklos described as a moment when he felt he literally had a human life in his hand and he doubled his efforts to rescue persons in danger. Still, Miklos felt he never did enough and that he rather remembered those they could not save, than those they could.

Miklos was probably one of the last persons in Budapest to see Raoul Wallenberg alive. Wallenberg telephoned Miklos to say his apartment was being watched, and he needed to leave immediately. He needed cash, some shirts, underwear, a razor etc. Miklos took money, his own clothing and razor and met Wallenberg to hand them over. In the years that followed, Miklos used to worry that one of the reasons Raoul Wallenberg was never identified after being taken prisoner was that all the shirts Wallenberg wore were marked “MM”. Miklos handed in all his significant papers from that time to the Swedish Embassy in Vienna in the late 1940s, which was the last contact he had with Sweden.

Miklos and his family came to Australia in the early 1950s, and settled in Adelaide where other family members already were living. He lived in Adelaide until is death in 1973. Miklos never spoke about his work with Raoul Wallenberg. Marina recalls an incident when she was a child. They family was visiting a coffee shop, called Pellegrini’s, when an elderly woman came up to Miklos – and kissed his hand: “That was an extraordinary sight in Australia. My father just mumbled something like: “We don’t talk about those things any more,” sort of bowed to her and turned away. Years later I asked my mother about that incident, and she said woman had recognized him from those Shutzpass days and was thanking him.”

In 2013, Raoul Wallenberg was made the first honorary Australian for his rescue work for Jewish people in Budapest. Marina says her father never asked recognition for the work he did. He felt keenly that he was not able to do enough. “But I very much wish my father could have known that Wallenberg would not only be internationally recognized for his work, but would also become the first ever Honorary Australian. He would have been so pleased to know this,“ says Marina.

A journey from Byron Bay to Stockholm

In May 2015, I was visiting Byron Bay with my husband, Sean Williams, whose mother grew up with Marina, both being children of Hungarian parents who settled in Adelaide during and after the war. I had met Marina on previous occasions, but our conversation after a BBQ on the beach in Byron Bay one evening, was one that will always stay with me. Knowing that I was running a business that worked with embassies in Sweden, Marina asked if I could help her with an important matter. She started to tell me about Miklos and his raincoat and said she wanted to donate the coat to a museum in Sweden, hoping that it could be a part of the mosaic, which makes up the life of Raoul Wallenberg.

Marina has had the coat in her possession since 1973, the year when her father died. Miklos had asked Marina, at the end of his life, to keep it safely, ”because it was a garment which spoke for freedom”. Miklos told Marina that her mother, Eva, one day would tell her the story of the raincoat. Eva did so in 1987, near the end of her life.   In 2015, I was told this moving story and Marina asked for my help to donate the raincoat to a suitable museum in Stockholm. We identified the Raoul Wallenberg Room at the Army Museum as an appropriate last home for the raincoat.

Marina and Jessica, Adelaide 2016
Jessica and Marina, Adelaide 2016

I met Marina again at her home in Adelaide in January 2016. I asked her to tell me more about the raincoat, some of which is recorded and can be listened to below.  After our hour-long conversation, Marina handed over Miklo’s raincoat, a most moving and humbling experience for both Marina and me. The coat has been in Marina’s possession for 40 years, ever since her father gave it to her at the end of his life. Opening the bag and looking at the raincoat – last worn by her father – was very special.  History certainly felt present.

On Raoul Wallenberg Day 2016 – 15 months after I was told the story of the raincoat – it was displayed at the Raoul Wallenberg Room at the Army Museum for the first time. Some stories need to be told, and the story of the raincoat and its brave owner is one of them.