JUNE 3, 2021
About the only undisputed matter in the disappearance of the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was that he was detained for questioning by Soviet police in Budapest on January 17, 1945. The fate of the man who saved tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution remains a mystery, as does his full personality. Credible accounts indicate that he probably died in Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison from a lethal injection two years later, as Stalin gave an edict that there would be no more killings by shooting in June of 1947. But could this hero of the Shoah, who used the Swedish embassy and passport service to shield probable Nazi victims, have been saved himself from murder by a totalitarian regime?
A Russian-Swedish project called Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative RW1-70 has been prodding the Russian government to open up its full files, and a new study from the historian Peter Axelsson puts fresh scrutiny on a series of meetings between Josef Stalin and the Swedish ambassador to the USSR Staffan Soderblom from December 1945 to June 1946 in which he sought confirmation that Wallenberg was dead. The talks opened when Stalin had made a surprisingly conciliatory offer of a trade and credit deal between the two previously antagonistic neighbors, knowing that he had important moles in the Swedish Navy. Swedish officials were eager not to derail the warming relations and Wallenberg’s fate was a potential sticking point that may have thought wise not to press. For years historian have wanted to see the hidden minutes of that exchange, but the Swedish government has closed those off.
But so many questions remain. How exactly did he die, and was it in the KGB’s prison? Or was he transferred to an eastern gulag, as at least one German ex-prisoner claimed? Why wasn’t Wallenberg traded for one of the many Russian spies detained in the West? Though his parents worked tirelessly to discover information, as well as his half-brother Guy van Dardel, why didn’t the wealthy side of his family in Sweden — especially his cousins Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg — exert more pressure on their government? Did their cousin know too much about Nazi money flowing through their Enskilda Bank and selling them iron ore, an act that got them banned from doing business with U.S. companies after the war?
Wallenberg had been raised by an independent-thinking grandfather who gave the boy an international education, sending him to South Africa to witness apartheid, to Palestine to observe the refugee Jews emigrating there, and to Michigan for his three years of architectural school. “First and foremost I wanted to make a man of him,” wrote the grandfather, “to give him a chance to see the world and, through mixing with foreigners, give him what most Swedes lack — an international outlook.” He concluded, “Raoul is a man. He has seen much of the world and has come into contact with people of all kinds.”
Happily independent, Raoul was never interested in joining in the family banking business. His lack of a wife or serious interest in marriage (and women?) also may have been cause for them thinking him an odd man out, an outlaw, a danger, and an embarrassment to the family name.
I became interested in Wallenberg’s life when I was the Salgo Professor in American Literature at ELTE University in Budapest. Otto Salgo had been a Holocaust victim. His son became Reagan’s Ambassador to Hungary and set up the professorship for Americans to come and teach in Budapest. I lived near an elegant bronze statue of Wallenberg, and was moved to research him for ten years, finding so many gaps in the record that I ultimately decided to write not a biography but a novel in which I had the freedom to speculate and invent certain scenes, based upon that hard research. I used the actual character of his KGB interrogator, for example, as a means of imagining deeds and motivations that went beyond the strict documentary history, which is lamentably thin in places — indeed, the missing Soviet documents are what the family and RW-1 have pursued all these years. The real-life KGB agent whom I met for an hour interview in Moscow in 2003 was a bag of bones fellow of 88, but he, of course had no documents, and offered only certain biographical clues and random memories.
One tantalizing clue to Wallenberg’s personality and motivations was his discovery that he was 1/16 Jewish, and was proud of it. The philosopher Ingemar Hedenius had been acquainted with Wallenberg, and he said in 1980: “He was proud of his partial Jewish ancestry, and must have exaggerated it somewhat. I remember him saying, ‘a person like me, who is both a Wallenberg and half-Jewish, can never be defeated.’”
But this was “exaggerated,” to use the philosopher’s words, because his great-great-great grandfather on his mother’s side was a Jew named Benedicks, who had come to Sweden near the end of the 18th century, one of the first Jews to settle there, and who later converted to Lutheranism. This is not a strong claim to heritage. But his open pride in being even fractionally Jewish may also have made him a rebel with the Lutheran Wallenberg cousins, Jakob and Markus.
My resulting novel Searching for Wallenberg contains a scene in a Lutheran church where he is discussing the fate of the Jews in Lutheran theology. It also proposes that the cousins of his family believed that Raoul may have preferred men to women — as I do — and therefore earned him homophobic distaste by his financier cousins, even though he was known to date women. Whether this was true in real life may never be known. But in my novel, I came up with a Raoul Wallenberg who was many-sided and complex, his own man, more realistically human than a perfect myth. To me, this only added to his stature as a true-life hero. For when mythical heroes do great deeds, we smile and we are entertained; when real men do great deeds, as Raoul did, we pay closer attention, and our admiration is more personal, for this represents what real men and women can achieve at their very human best.
When I was invited to give a talk about my subject at my graduate alma mater Stanford University in 2016, I was delighted that it would be in the newly given Wallenberg Hall Building.
My delight turned to shock when I learned the Wallenberg family gift was to honor one of the banker cousins, Marcus, not Raoul. Abandoned in life by some members of Wallenberg family and by the Swedish government, here was a further abandonment at an American university. Raoul deserved better.
The ongoing RWI-70 initiative seeks to continue that honorable pursuit.