May 27, 2009

What Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?


Canadians work to unravel mystery surrounding WWII hero’s death

With his only weapons being ingenuity, an authoritative air, a savvy
understanding of the enemy, and most of all unflinching courage, Raoul
Wallenberg managed to save an estimated 100,000 Hungarian Jews from
Hitler’s gas chambers during the waning months of World War II.

The son of a prominent Swedish family of respected bankers, diplomats,
and politicians, Wallenberg entered Hungary at the request of the
United States War Refugee Board and the Swedish government in July
1944, undercover as a Swedish diplomat.

On January 17, 1945,
just six months after he began his mission, Wallenberg was captured by
Russian soldiers. He was never heard from again.

This spring
marks the 65th anniversary of Wallenberg’s mission to Hungary, and a
group of Canadians who have been working to uncover what became of the
brave Swede are hoping the mystery surrounding his disappearance will
soon be solved.

Wallenberg’s mission was to rescue as many
of Hungary’s Jews as possible from Nazi extermination. At the time of
his arrival in Budapest there were only 230,000 Jews left; Adolf
Eichmann, the so-called architect of the Holocaust, had already sent
the other 400,000 to the gas chambers.

In the middle of enemy
territory and under the noses of the German soldiers, Wallenberg handed
out fake passports he had designed to Jews who were crammed onto trains
and on foot in 125-mile ”death marches.” They were then hustled to
waiting international Red Cross trucks or cars marked in Swedish
colours and taken to safe houses.

”He was a great hero of the
war and I think that knowing what happened to him would help in
remembering what he did,” says David Matas, a Winnipeg-based
international human rights lawyer and Wallenberg researcher.

”It’s also simply a matter of justice to him in his memory. I think
after he did so much to help so many people we owe it to him and his
family to do what we can to help in finding out what happened to him.”

Matas says there’s a ”wide variety of conflicting strings of evidence”
pointing in many different directions, including that Wallenberg was
shot, stabbed, poisoned, or died of a heart attack.

Russian government has been accused of stonewalling attempts to
discover what happened to Wallenberg after his capture and subsequent
imprisonment in the notorious Lubyanka prison.

after the war, the USSR said Wallenberg died in Hungary of a motor
vehicle accident, says Matas. Then in 1957 they said he had died in
1947 of a heart attack. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow
said he was murdered in 1947 but did not say how.

For years,
however, there were numerous reports from former gulag prisoners who
claimed to have seen, heard of, or communicated with Wallenberg in
various Russian prisons after 1947.

”The Soviet Union has
always had a position about Wallenberg. The trouble is the position
kept on changing over time and the subsequent position contradicted the
earlier position. So it’s just this constant shift of conflicting
positions without any real evidence behind any of them,” Matas says.

Matas authored a report on Wallenberg in1998, financed by the
Department of Foreign Affairs under then-Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd

”The conclusion of my report was that the answer to
the question of what happened to Wallenberg is not known but it is
knowable,” he says.

He found that the primary difficulty in
determining Wallenberg’s fate is the inability of independent
researchers to access Russian confidential archives.

Vladimir Lapchin, senior councilor with the Russian Embassy in Ottawa,
says what documentation there is on Wallenberg was made available to
researchers in the early 1990s.

”There is nothing new since,”
he says. ”There are just documents confirming that he was in prison and
that’s it. Was he shot, was he executed—there are no documents about

He says allegations of a cover-up by Moscow are
unfounded. ”People try to find the black cat in the black room even if
there is no black cat.”

Nominated twice for the Nobel Peace
Prize, Wallenberg is an honourary citizen in four countries including
Canada and the United States. There are monuments to him in 12
countries while commemorative stamps have been issued in eight. He has
also been the subject of numerous books and films.

Canada has
declared January 17, the day he disappeared, as Raoul Wallenberg Day,
and there are commemorative parks in several Canadian cities. It is
largely thanks to Ottawa resident Vera Gara’s efforts that Raoul
Wallenberg Park was built in Ottawa.

Gara, herself a survivor
of the Nazi death camps, has been involved with the ”Wallenberg
project” since 1986. She says there’s a new and promising lead
currently being investigated.

Wallenberg researchers have
asked the Hungarian Embassy for help in obtaining information on three
men, one of whom shared a cell with Wallenberg’s assistant in Lefortovo
prison prior to 1947.

The other two men worked in the
Hungarian resistance movement, which had direct contact with
Wallenberg. All three are known to have worked with Wallenberg in
Budapest in 1944.

Consular official Imre Helyes said in her
reply that ”it is possible” the Hungarian National Archive could have
some material relating to the three men and that, upon receiving more
information, ”researchers in the Archive may be able to determine what
sources of information may exist there.”

Gara sees this as a positive sign.

”I’m very optimistic,” she says. ”My feeling is something is happening,
and it has to be now. Quite frankly it has to be now, because there has
to be closure on this.”

Speaking at a dinner to commemorate
Wallenberg’s heroism in April, Wallenberg researcher and former MP
David Kilgour was critical of Hungary, Sweden, and the U.S. for not
doing more to find out what became of the war hero.

and his team rescued more than one-third of all Jews saved by the U.S.
War Refugee Board, he said. ”Until his seizure, he was the board’s best
asset. Yet successive U.S. administrations have offered little more
than tokenism since 1945 in solving the mystery of his disappearance.”

Kilgour told The Epoch Times that Canada should also be more active in
uncovering the truth about Wallenberg’s fate—especially after the
incident in which the St. Louis, a ship loaded with Jews fleeing the
Holocaust, was not allowed to land on Canadian shores.

”We did
so little to help the Jewish people before the war, and in a small way
this is what we should be trying to do to try to make up for that
terrible injustice [to the people aboard the St. Louis].”

one point, Wallenberg studied architecture at the University of
Michigan, where he was known for his good humour, energy, and
”anti-snobism,” according to Kilgour.

During vacations, he
hitchhiked around the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. After graduating, he
spent some time in South Africa and the Middle East. It was in
Palestine (now Israel) that Wallenberg, a Christian, first met Jews
fleeing Hitler’s Germany.

Kilgour hopes the mystery of Wallenberg’s fate will be solved while his two siblings are still alive.

”The truth will come out. It’s just whether it’s going to come out
before all Wallenberg’s siblings are dead. It would be nice if it could
come out now rather than 25 years from now.”