January 21, 2001

Portrait of a Silent Hero


The Fate of Wallenberg, the Man who Saved Thousands of Jews During the Holocaust, Remains Shrouded in Mystery

Raoul Wallenberg was 31 years old in the spring of 1944. He had studied architecture in Michigan, had worked in a bank in Haifa (then Palestine), and had traveled throughout Europe on exporting/importing business trips: these trips had alerted him to the havoc wreaked by the war, and although Sweden had maintained itself neutral, he was aware of the pressing necessity for personal and positive involvement.

Wallenberg was, and is, a well-known last name in Stockholm: his is a prestigious family of bankers and diplomats. His father, a marine officer, had died three months prior to his birth. From his mother, Maj, and later from his stepfather, Frederick von Dardel, ”he received so much love that grew up with a not-so-common disposition towards generosity, compassion and affection.”

Responding to a request made by the United States and the WRB (War Refugee Board), the Swedish government, the only among the neutral countries of Europe, resolved to enlarge its personnel by creating a humanitarian department within its diplomatic legation in Budapest in order to defend the lives of some 800,000 Jews threatened in Hungary with the extermination plan the Nazis had been utilizing in other countries.

Wallenberg was chosen to carry out this task. He required his own conditions in order to act and assumed absolute commitment to his mission, officially that of ”attaché”. In order to show disagreement with Sztójay’s puppet government set up by the Nazis, Swedish Ambassador Danielsson remained in Budapest in the rank of minister and the embassy fell under the category of legation. In March of that year, Adolph Eichmann was preparing to advance over Hungary and begin his program of forced deportation first, and then the extermination plans, to which Regent Miklós Horthy was wholy opposed.

Eichmann installed his headquarters that month in the Majestic Hotel, in Buda. The restrictions, the obligatory use of the yellow Star of David, and the deportations to Poland and the ”camps” were begun. Wallenberg arrived in July when the deportations were still prohibited. He organized his team, 250 people, all Jewish Hungarians, at the Swedish legation. He began to issue very elaborate, impressive passports of that nationality. He counted with having one-sixteenth Jewish blood from his mother’s side, but over all, he relied more heavily on inventiveness, audacity, personal charisma, and organizational abilities.

At the Right Moment

Between May 14 and July 8 more than 400,000 men, women and children had been packed onto trains bound for the Polish border. All together there were some 600,000 deportees until Horthy ordered the suspension of operations. The ”Final Solution” hovered above Hungary and Wallenberg resorted to anything in order to save lives: negotiations, coercion, and bribery. He elicited the help is the Swiss, Americans, Spaniards, some South American legations, the Red Cross and Nuncio Angelo Rotta.

In the capital, the Jews were packed into ghettoes or in temporary ”camps”. Wallenberg managed to protect houses and people on behalf of the Swedish government; he bought food, clothing, medicine and started kitchens and hospitals. His intelligence network made him aware of a train’s loading time or a raid in a protected zone: he make it a point to be there.

In August the war began to turn against Germany’s favor. Horthy was trying to reestablish Hungarian sovereignty and stop the persecutions. The Red Army was advancing from the east, the English and Americans from the west. Berlin withdrew Eichmann from Budapest on the 30th, and although he remained in power for a short while, he ordered the Jews to assemble in forced labor camps. Wallenberg believed that the situation would become more favorable with the Russian occupation.

Through the kidnapping of the regent’s son, the Nazis were able to get rid of Horthy and his government. Once Ferenc Szálasi assumed power, Eichmann returned triumphant to Budapest. He immediately renewed the persecutions. By October all diplomatic and foreign ecclesiastical protections were annulled. Wallenberg pressed Chancellor Kemény’s wife, whose Jewish ancestry no one was aware of, to obtain the recognition of 4,000 Swedish and 7,000 Swiss passports.

A Legendary Move

Thousands of men were sent to dig trenches or to work for the Hungarian army in subhuman conditions. By November, the neutral countries were unable to stop the ghastly marches women and children were forced to make to the Austrian border. It was during these marches that Wallenberg’s actions became legendary. With conviction and courage he demanded the rights of his Swedish citizens (whether they were or were not). He would withhold, threaten, and made the military personnel return the people his government was protecting. In the last few months he would climb onto train car’s roofs handing out passports, and would wait at the border where he would intervene the columns of marching men, who were to be ”loaned” to Germany with the promise of food, coats, lists of names and passports.

Thousands died on the way. Others were driven across the border. 13,000 remained in the capital. Himmler finally gave the order to cease the marches. Wallenberg had been able to save 15,000 men, 2,000 people from the marches. It is calculated that he saved 30,000 lives. Some believe the number to be more around 100,000.

While the Russians, Americans, and the English were bombarding the city, chaos and looting reigned. The Jews were confined to two ghettoes in Pest: one, general, the other, international. During the first few months of 1945 many government functionaries and diplomats fled. Wallenberg continued fighting alongside the neutrals and the Red Cross, looking for allies or bribing the police. Even though Eichmann had abandoned the city on December 23, he ordered a massacre that Wallenberg was able to foil.

When the Russians arrived at the general ghetto, they found 69,000 Jews still alive, at the international, 25,000 and a few others hidden in Buda. All together 120,000 had survived the ”Final Solution”: the only substantial Jewish community left in Europe. Wallenberg was the only diplomat who had remained in Pest. Now his purpose was to propose a reconstruction plan to the Soviets. With that end in mind he took his driver, Vilmos Langfelder and some Soviet guards to Debrecen, where a provisional government had been established. He wanted to reach Commander Malinovsky. Somewhere on that route, their supposed ”guards” handed them over to the KGB (then NKVD) and put them under ”military protection”. They were never seen alive again.

The pieces of the puzzle obtained over the years allow us to suppose that the Soviets did not believe in the humanitarian and voluntary mission of a wealthy man (the Wallenbergs had commercial ties with the Soviet Union) or they thought him a German or American spy. On February 19, 1945 both appeared to be locked up at the Lubianka prison. An official Soviet report, that has since been contradicted, stated that he was indeed under Soviet custody and that ”measures to protect him have been taken.” The Gulag shrouded them in the shadows and even until today we cannot know for certain his fate. Stalin’s government began denying that Wallenberg was ever in the Soviet Union. After Stalin’s death in 1953, German prisoners and isolated testimonials began to surface. One from a cell-mate, another from someone who had shared a cell with Langfelder. His bone chilling testimony, which took years to emerge and be correctly interpreted gave an account of his incarceration at Lubianka. Before 1947 he was at Butyrka, the Vadivov Camp, and the prison at Gorki. In 1957, Chancellor Gromyko affirmed that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack (at 35 years of age?) in 1947 at Lubianka. His remains had been cremated and the witnesses (prison authorities) had died shortly thereafter.

Public opinion and Wallenberg family pressure, along with Wallenberg’s candidature to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1948; Simon Wiesenthal’s campaign; the impetus that his cause gained once the United States named him an honorary citizen in 1980, the international fury surrounding this tragedy, failed to alter the Soviet stance. There were no archives, no documents past the 1947 register. The testimonials, including one gotten by a Swedish scientist during an International Congress in 1961, later denied by the source, placed Wallenberg in a psychiatric hospital and other testimonials somewhat alluded to the possibility that Wallenberg might have been in the Gulag prison system, remaining there as late as the end of the 1970′s. We can here assume a deliberate cover up was at work. The recent Swedish-Russian Report presided over by Hans Magnusson reiterates that uncertainty, the impossibility of determining his ultimate fate. In the next few days this mystery will recover its dramatic validity: will there be an answer?

In Buenos Aires, Wallenberg is remembered by a sculpture by the Argentine artist, Norma D’Ippolito erected in Palermo, and the Argentine Postal Service has issued a commemorative stamp. All these are initiatives of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and Casa Argentina en Jerusalem, both the driving force behind the Commemorative Mural to the Victims of the Holocaust at the Metropolitan Cathedral and the planned project to construct a Monument to the Righteous Among the Nations in our city.

Source: Righteous Gentile, por John Bierman. The Viking Press.
Copyright © 2001 La Nación | All rights reserved
Translation: IRWF