May 27, 2008

The Enduring Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg

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Raoul Wallenberg was the diplomat who would appear like a phantom in Budapest, handing out the Swedish passports that saved some 15,000 Hungarian Jews from being murdered by the Nazis. But Wallenberg had no such help himself on January 17, 1945, when he was taken into custody by the Soviet forces that had liberated Budapest. The Swedish diplomat was never heard from again, and Moscow would later report that Wallenberg had died in Lubyanka Prison in 1947.

But in the 63 years since his arrest, the Wallenberg family and generations of researchers have relentlessly pursued the possibility that the Swedish diplomat survived long after 1947, as a secret prisoner in the Soviet gulag system. ”There are plenty of indications that he may have survived past 1947, and these deserve thorough examination,” says Susanne Berger, a German-born researcher who has spent 15 years exploring Wallenberg’s fate.

Skeptics ask what motive the Soviets might have had for imprisoning Wallenberg, and for lying about his fate for decades after. Scholars exploring Wallenberg’s relationship with the intelligence agencies battling each other in wartime and postwar Hungary, however, suggest that Moscow may have perceived the Swede as a spy for the West.

”There were few if any neutral businessmen traveling about Europe [in 1944] who did not have some contact or other with some intelligence service, and probably with several,” says historian C.G. McKay. And, he says, Wallenberg was no exception.

The Swedish diplomat had been recruited to lead the mission to rescue Budapest’s Jews by War Refugee Board member Olsen Ivers, who was also head of the Stockholm station of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to the CIA. Swedish Security Police, according to McKay, have wiretap records of a cryptic 1943 phone conversation between Wallenberg and British national Cyril Chesire, who headed both the British Passport Office and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in Stockholm.

While in Budapest, Wallenberg also had well-documented contact with individuals linked to British intelligence although American Wallenberg researcher Susan Mesinai suggests he was not necessarily aware of their espionage work. And others have suggested he may have had links with another U.S. wartime intel operation known as the ‘Pond’, and that there are still unanswered questions about Wallenberg’s relationship with Swedish intelligence.

”Raoul Wallenberg was attempting to use the OSS and almost anyone else to help him help people escape,” argues Chris Simpson, a Professor at American University in Washington. ”Meanwhile the OSS was attempting to use Wallenberg as a source of intelligence.”

But researcher Berger says that the truth over whether or not Wallenberg was a spy is less important than the fact that the Soviets probably perceived him to be one in a postwar climate of paranoia as Moscow braced for a Western attack on the Soviet Union.

Hungarian security official Karoly Remenyi, who defected to the West in the early 1980s, testified that he had been involved in planning a show trial in Budapest in 1953 (a plan abandoned after Stalin’s death) that had intended to prove a Jewish-Zionist plot against communism – a trial that Remenyi said his Soviet interlocutors had given him to understand would involve Wallenberg, some six years after the Soviets officially claim he died.

Remenyi’s is far from the only account suggesting that Wallenberg may have lived beyond his official date of death. Over the decades, there have been a plethora of anecdotes from former Gulag inmates who claimed to have seen, heard of, or communicated with Wallenberg in various Soviet prisons after 1947. According to Berger, a Swedish doctor reports having been privately informed during a medical convention in Moscow in 1961, by a ranking Soviet cardiologist, that Wallenberg was alive, but ailing in a psychiatric hospital.

Researchers believe that the truth of Wallenberg’s fate may lie in his prison file, of the type created for all inmates of the Soviet penal system. Countless researchers, including a Swedish-Russian Working Group that labored from 1991 until 2000 to find traces of Wallenberg in Russia, have failed to win access to this file, and other records they consider crucial, such as the files on certain prisoners and officials who figure into the Wallenberg story, and also logistical information such as prison guard logs, prisoner transport manifests, and information on occupancy in the Vladimir Prison, where Wallenberg may have been incarcerated in the 1960s.

The report issued by the Swedish-Russian Working Group in 2000 listed 17 questions that need to be addressed by the Russian government before Wallenberg’s fate can be determined. In the eight years since, not a single question has been answered.

”I don’t buy that they [the Russians] don’t know,” says researcher Susan Mesinai. ”I do buy that they have a complexity of reasons for not producing the files” that would solve the mystery. According to Marvin Makinen, a University of Chicago Professor who was a member of the Swedish-Russian Working Group, the Russians could be holding back because the truth about Wallenberg may still be dangerous.

”One reason [for keeping this secret] is that there is someone alive who was part of the Soviet government who participated in the decisions about Wallenberg, and would be held accountable if the truth got out,” Makinen told TIME. He can think of few other reasons why the Russians are unwilling to cooperate in resolving the issue – particularly if it believes the official Soviet account of Wallenberg’s death is the truth.

But researchers also fault Sweden for failing to insist that Moscow release the information that would resolve the issue. ”We know for sure that there is plenty of important documentation in Russian archives we have not seen at all,” says Berger. ”And, for whatever reasons, Sweden is not pushing very hard to get access to it.”

So why do the researchers persist, in the face of such stonewalling, more than six decades after Wallenberg disappeared?

”It’s a question of principle,” says Berger. ”Millions of people suffered and died in Soviet captivity. Raoul Wallenberg is symbolic of all these people. It’s like Wallenberg’s brother once said: ‘Yes, millions died, but I want to know about this one.’”