February 1, 2012

Raoul Wallenberg in Russia: Definitely not a Guest, but a Prisoner

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When Soviet troops liberated Budapest by the middle of January 1945, it marked the end of the harrowing ordeal suffered by Hungary’s Jewish population at the hands of German and Hungarian Nazi supporters. Over half a million victims lay dead, while tens of thousands more were barely clinging to life in Budapest’s main ghetto and numerous safe houses, under the protection of neutral legations such as Sweden and Switzerland.

The arrival of the Soviet army brought an end to the carnage and at least a momentary sense that the worst was over. However, for Raoul Wallenberg, whose aid network had been instrumental in helping thousands of people to survive, it merely signaled the beginning of his own difficult journey.

From the moment Soviet officials first encountered the young Swedish diplomat on January 13, they assigned him a small personal detail of soldiers. When he planned to leave the Hungarian capital a few days later to meet with the Soviet High Command located in Debrecen, Wallenberg told colleagues half jokingly that he was not certain whether he was going as “a guest or a prisoner.” He was unaware that in Moscow the decision had already been made to detain both him and his Hungarian driver, Vilmos Langfelder, with the formal arrest order issued by Soviet Deputy Defense Minister Bulganin – most likely with direct approval from Stalin – as early as January 17, 1945.

Publicly, however, the uncertainty about the Soviets’ true intentions lasted for three more weeks. As the two young men were taken by train not to Debrecen but across Hungary and Romania to Moscow, Wallenberg passed the time by beginning to write down notes about his experiences of the past eventful months. Occasionally, he and Langfelder were allowed to leave the train for a hot drink and a meal at a railway station, but always in the company of Soviet guards.

Upon their arrival in Moscow in early February, both men were taken on a tour of the city’s modern engineering marvel, the Moscow Metro. From there, they were led straight to the Lubyanka prison where any remaining pretense of benevolent intentions on the part of their hosts was abruptly shattered.

The kind of welcome Wallenberg and Langfelder received in Lubyanka has been described by numerous former prisoners. The same registration procedure applied to everyone entering the infamous investigation prison, from high ranking foreign generals to regular Russian civilians. Lubyanka was an enormous structure, a former hotel complex from Tsarist times, that spanned a whole city block and housed huge cellars well suited for detention and interrogation purposes.

Upon arrival, the Wallenberg and Langfelder had to hand over all of their luggage and possessions, for which they received a formal receipt. They were forced to strip naked, while undergoing an extremely invasive body search. As former Finnish prisoner of war, Unto Parvilahti, described this experience: “A swift and expert scrutiny was made of every conceivable opening in the human body where one might have thought to have hidden something, including ear holes, nostrils and tooth cavities.”

The new prisoners’ clothes received an equally thorough examination. All buttons were removed, all clothes linings were ripped open to ensure that no objects were hidden in them. All belts and shoe laces were confiscated, in order to forestall attempts to commit suicide. Then Wallenberg and Langfelder’s heads were shaved and they underwent a short medical examination which included disinfection and immunization measures. Finally, the two were photographed and fingerprinted and sent to separate cells.

There they were left to a depressing routine. They shared cramped quarters with up to three other prisoners. The day began at six in the morning with a few minutes alloted to use the wash basin and to go to the toilet – a closed bucket in the corner of the cell. Breakfast arrived at seven, consisting of tea or simply boiled water with a lump of sugar, and a piece of bread. During the day, prisoners were not allowed to lie on the bed or to turn their backs to the cell door. Every few minutes, a guard would look through the peep hole of the door.

For lunch and dinner, inmates received a thin cabbage soup which contained some fat, barley and occasionally fish heads or fish bones. Bedtime came at ten at night, with prisoners forced to sleep on their backs, hands on top of the blankets, and with the ceiling light turned on at all times. Contact with neighboring cells was strictly forbidden and guards used a carefully coordinated signal system to avoid meetings with other inmates when moving prisoners between cells. Guards did not talk to the prisoners and did not tell them in advance where they were being taken.

Shortly after his arrival on February 6, 1945 Wallenberg formally protested his imprisonment in a letter he addressed to the commanding officer of Lubyanka prison. In his complaint Wallenberg referred to his status as a Swedish citizen and Swedish diplomat. He received no reply. Around this time Wallenberg was led to his first interrogation, an experience that left him deeply shaken. He told his cellmate, Gustav Richter, that the interrogator was “a terrible man”. Wallenberg learned that he was accused of espionage and that his was “a political case”. His interrogator further informed him “You are well known to us. You belong to a great capitalist family in Sweden”.

Interrogations were carried out often at night with prisoners not allowed to sleep during the day, leaving them quickly exhausted. Harsh interrogation methods included beatings with rubber batons. Prisoners were also forced to spend time in punishment cells that were either extremely hot or cold or were so small that a person could neither stand nor sit down. Additional torment came from bedbugs and cockroaches, a result of the excellent breeding ground provided by the former hotel’s oak parquet floors.

After some weeks, both Wallenberg and Langfelder were transferred to Lefortovo Prison, the other major investigative facility in Moscow, which constituted no measurable improvement. A former palace complex built in the 18th century, the cells there got so cold and damp, that even in the warmer months of the year ice formed on the walls. Unlike in Lubyanka, prisoners were not given any kind of reading material such as books or old newspapers. They could leave their cells only occasionally, for a walk in specially designated walking courts. Food consisted of potato or pea puree or porridge.

Lefortovo boasted effective use of psychological torture, such as prisoners being exposed to repetitive voice and sound recordings that played for days on end with the intention of slowly driving them mad. During the time Wallenberg and Langfelder were held there, Lefortovo prison also served as a laboratory for human experiments, from the use of special injections to testing the effects of ultrasonic sound on human beings.

In March 1947, Wallenberg was moved back to Lubyanka. During the two years of his captivity he had not been allowed any kind of contact with the Swedish Embassy located just a few short kilometers away. By July 1947 he had been assigned a number – “Prisoner Nr. 7? – indicating that the investigation of his case had now reached a serious state. On July 23, 1947 he was subjected to sixteen hours of continuous interrogation. After that, Wallenberg’s trail breaks off. It remains unclear if he was killed shortly afterwards or if he remained for a longer time as a secret prisoner in Lubyanka or in another facility. It is almost certain that Russian officials today know what happened to Raoul Wallenberg but do not wish to reveal the full circumstances of his imprisonment.

There has been much talk in recent weeks about Raoul Wallenberg as a man of action, as someone who did not remain “indifferent” when faced with the suffering of others. In Budapest, he fought as hard as any soldier on the battle field for the lives and rights of ordinary people. As such a soldier, he followed an unwritten code of honor — “no one shall be left behind”. Sixty-seven years later, Raoul Wallenberg is still waiting to be extended that same honor in return.