October 28, 2009

Remembering Raoul

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The Swedish physicist Guy von Dardel was buried last month at age 90 without having realized the great quest of his life: freeing Raoul Wallenberg, his older half-brother who safeguarded some 20,000 Jews from the Nazis before disappearing into Soviet captivity in January 1945.

Von Dardel, like myriad private and governmental committees, failed even to pry loose from Moscow definitive proof of what befell Wallenberg. (The Kremlin has maintained since 1957 that he died of a heart attack in 1947.) But he never stopped searching for his big brother, scavenging Moscow on trips that left him with scabies, hypothermia and few answers.

I recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal about the horrible and hidden toll that Wallenberg’s disappearance took on his closest kin – half-brother Guy, half-sister Nina, mother Maj and stepfather Fredrik. Wallenberg’s parents – exhausted, heartbroken and disillusioned – committed suicide two days apart in February 1979.

Today, Nina continues to spread word of her half-brother, focusing less on his whereabouts through the six decades that followed his arrest than on his heroism in the six months before it.

Following are what she and four other surviving people who knew Wallenberg told me about him.

Nina Lagergren, 88; Djursholm, Sweden

Lagergren was born almost nine years after Raoul to his mother and stepfather. (Wallenberg’s father, the scion of a banking dynasty in Sweden, had died before his son was born.)

”You can imagine,” says Lagergren, ”a little girl having an older brother – good-looking, witty, speaking languages. Perfect!”

The younger sister was 15 years old when, in 1936, Wallenberg returned to Sweden after five years abroad at school and at work. He was a gust of fun.

”I remember vividly,” says Lagergren, ”at a Christmas party in the country, he mimicked different nationalities” – an American businessman, a German officer, French and British diplomats – each in their own language. ”Everybody laughed.”

Wallenberg, says Lagergren, was also ambitious and empathic. When, during wartime, they watched on Sveavägen Street the film Pimpernel Smith, the fictional tale of a professor rescuing refugees from the Gestapo, Wallenberg told her, ”That is what I want to do.”

Wallenberg instead turned to business, trying in vain to sell a better zipper and bottle cap, then trading foodstuffs through Europe. He lamented his lot to his sister in February 1944 after she moved to Berlin, where her husband worked for the Swedish embassy.

”It is frightfully boring here without you,” he wrote her. ”The dinner table at home is straight out of a play by [August] Strindberg.”

Months later, Wallenberg got his opportunity to rescue refugees. And on July 6, wearing a homburg, a trench coat and a Browning revolver, he flew to his sister en route to Hungary.

”We came and fetched him at the airport,” recalls Lagergren. The trio retired to their terrace overlooking Wannsee Lake in the village of Caputh, where Wallenberg spoke excitedly of his mission. Adds Lagergren, ”It was a beautiful July night.”

An air raid siren woke the siblings before dawn, and hours later, Wallenberg, 31, boarded a train bound for Hungary.

Rolf af Klintberg, 97; Alby, Sweden

Af Klintberg and Wallenberg were classmates in Stockholm from age 10 to 18.

”He was one of my best, best friends,” says af Klintberg, adding, ”I was more popular. He was more special. The other boys admired him.”

Wallenberg, he says, was smart, artistic, funny, skilled at debate, and confident.

”He was never arrogant, but he was sure that he would be more successful than other people,” he recalls. Wallenberg particularly aspired to the clout of his paternal uncles: ”His ambition was to be one of the big Wallenbergs.”

The friends, firstborn sons, sang in choir together, did homework together, were drafted together, took walks together in their matching black school caps. And as they grew older and war came to Europe, it was politics that they discussed most. Af Klintberg says he was mainly interested in domestic affairs, Wallenberg in the world outside Sweden.

”He told me that it was necessary to go against Nazism,” says af Klintberg. ”I was more neutral. He had been in America and he thought like America in these things.”

Af Klintberg never told his close friend that he was Jewish. But, he says, ”I’m sure that he knew it.”

Caroline Grinda-Christensen, 84; Stockholm

Grinda-Christensen was a rising dancer and singer, often performing during World War II for the Swedish military, when Wallenberg heard her sing in 1942. He phoned her and they went to a restaurant.

She was 17 and beautiful; he was 30 and balding and unsure of a profession. But, she says, he was ”chivalrous” and possessed a sense of humor that ”made me more or less fall in love with him.” When she wrote him that she had gained a kilo, he wrote back that he hoped the kilo was in the proper place.

Over some 15 dates, she says, the couple shared food and wine and their aspirations.

”He wanted to be an ambassador,” says Grinda-Christensen. ”That was his private wish.”

She adds, ”I think he looked at himself as the hero… He wanted to make a name. He wanted to be famous.”

He also wanted, she says, ”a beautiful wife.” And one night at Hasselbacken restaurant, Wallenberg asked her to enroll in a school run by nuns.

”An ambassador couldn’t have someone from the theater,” she explains. He then sketched for her, on a tablecloth she still has, the home that would someday be theirs.

Says Grinda-Christensen, ”He gave it to me and said, ‘Save this until I come back.’”

János Beér, 86; Winchester, Massachusetts

In November 1944, Beér, a university economics student in Budapest, bumped into his friend Thomas Veres, who invited him to the nearby Swedish legation where he worked for Wallenberg as a photographer. Beér went. He did not tell Wallenberg that he was Jewish (though he believes Wallenberg knew, despite his forged identity papers). Wallenberg put him to work in his ”Schutzling Protokoll,” an elite group he had created to rescue abducted Jews and to transfer Jews from the general ghetto in Budapest to the international ghetto.

”This sounds very romantic,” says Beér, ”but with Wallenberg in the background, we felt very safe… If we were not back, it was sure Wallenberg would be there for us. We looked at him as a half-god.”

The two men spoke, in German, roughly every other day for six weeks. Wallenberg, says Beér, was optimistic, calm, respectful, reassuring and full of humor.

On November 28, Beér, Wallenberg, his photographer and driver arrived in his Studebaker at the Józsefváros railway station where the Nazis had packed Jews into a cattle car for deportation. Wallenberg and Beér spent hours negotiating the release of those Jews who held ”Schutzpasse” – the passport-like credentials Wallenberg had created to claim the Jews under Swedish jurisdiction.

Says Beér, ”Several hundred people were taken out of the railway car.”

The men had returned to their car when Wallenberg saw a man on the train waving a piece of paper. He asked Beér to see if it was one of his passports. Beér approached the train.

”The gendarme said, ‘Get away or I shoot you,’” he recalls. Beér got back in the car, off to the safe house where Wallenberg saw to it the rescued Jews were fed soup.

”Wallenberg had not eaten all day,” adds Beér. ”Tommy Veres sat on his sandwiches.”

Margaretha Hamacher Merz, 85; Salisbury, England

Merz met Wallenberg in 1943 at a restaurant through her friend and his cousin Jan Bönde. The two became friends, sharing light conversations over monthly dinners.

”We didn’t talk politics,” says Merz.

The next summer, she says, ”suddenly he said, ‘I must go to Budapest.’”

There is no record that Wallenberg phoned anyone with any regularity from Hungary – not the Swedish or US foreign departments or even his parents. (Wallenberg spoke to his family just once from Budapest, when his sister’s husband Gunnar phoned him with the news that he was an uncle.) But there was one person Wallenberg rang every third day.

”Budapest calling,” the operator would say, recalls Merz. Her mother would then call out to her 20-year-old daughter that Wallenberg was on the phone.

”He just asked whether it was snowing, the weather. He wanted all the talk,” says Merz. ”He was very interested in horseracing. I think he wanted to buy a horse.”

Says Merz, ”this went on half a year, and then it stopped.”

Today, almost 65 years later, Russia should provide definitive answers about what befell Wallenberg while the last few people who knew him – chief among them his sister – are still alive.