July 9, 2004

Beyond the shadows of Raoul Wallenberg


”I am personally satisfied with the work of the commission,” announced dispassionately the former KGB colonel of the Soviet secret police, Vladimir Vinogradov, on a study of the fate of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, ”the official work is now closed, although there remain questions which have been recognized as requiring answers.”

Mr. Vinogradov’s statement, coming after a ten-year study on the fate of Mr. Wallenberg, was supposed to give closure to the mystery behind the Swedish diplomat who has become a legendary figure for having saved the lives of many thousands of Jews from deportation during the Second World War. Soviet troops arrested Mr. Wallenberg in 1945, and while Soviet officials claimed he had later died of a heart attack, firm, substantiating evidence has, despite the report, not been found. The fact that the Wallenberg Case may be closed for some Russian researchers, many are still not satisfied enough to call closure to the debate.

Researchers, even Swedish members of the commission investigating the Case, are still skeptical about how Mr. Wallenberg spent his final days.

The mysterious and tragic fate of the Swedish diplomat has symbolic and real value for many. Although Mr. Wallenberg shines out in the public eye, there are still other Hungarian individuals, organizations, religious officials, and diplomatic bodies that also participated in life-saving activities during the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944. The stories of the handful of like-minded heroes, now lying in the shadows of the Wallenberg mystery, have remained unsung.

Mr. Wallenberg is classified among the select few who undertook impassioned life-saving activities during those turbulent years.Szabolcs Szita, professor of history and director of the Hungarian Auschwitz Foundation’s Holocaust Documentation Center, refutes the popular notion of creating a de facto pecking order, among wartime heroes. As some religious Jews would say, ”Whosoever saves a soul for mankind, saves the entire world.”

Other, perhaps lesser known heroes of the War include Papal Nunciate Angelo Rotta, Friedrich Born of the International Red Cross, and the Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz. Spurred on by moral conviction, all of these individuals by far surpassed their official spheres of responsibility.

At the time of Mr. Wallenberg’s arrival in Budapest, most of the Jews from the countryside had already been deported. Mr. Wallenberg’s original assignment called for the issuing of exit passes for 250 individuals. It was only later, however, after understanding the gravity of the situation, was he able to convince authorities to accept the distribution of some 5000 additional so-called ”Schutzpasses”, or travel documents. These represented merely a third of the number of those distributed among persons under his, or Swedish, protection. While there was no basis in international law for the validity of these travel documents, somehow they were respected by dull-witted Nazi collaborators.

The Swedish Schutzpass differed from the rescue documents issued by other embassies earlier in the War. It is even believed that Mr. Wallenberg had actually designed the document himself. After 15 October, 1944, the collaborative Arrow Cross-Nazi government took control, and the conflict intensified in Budapest. It was at this time that Mr. Wallenberg, on his own, decided to remain in Hungary despite the fact that his mission had expired earlier in September. The young and robust Swedish diplomat continued to circulate in public, at a time when doing just that was highly dangerous. With his self-assured demeanor he rescued individuals under almost impossible circumstances. It was his charisma, personal conviction and courage that helped him establish an elaborate network of Hungarian collaborators. In peoples minds, it is these actions that have distinguished Mr. Wallenberg from other rescuers. And it is these qualities that have contributed to the myth that has surrounded his life and story.

Upon his capture by the Soviets, Mr. Wallenberg was accused of espionage. This allegation may have been simply out of routine, as the Soviets accused many foreigners of collaboration. Many of these people were subsequently deported, including Mr. Wallenberg. Paul A. Levine, professor of history at the Swedish University of Uppsala, questions the paradoxical role played by Regent Horthy, who on July 7, 1944 ordered a stop to deportation when he finally realized Adolf Eichmann’s mission of destruction. It was also under his leadership that Hungary’s Jews were deported from the countryside. In this context Mr. Levin asks how to weigh the act of ‘heroism’ of Regent Horthy in de facto saving the lives of a good deal of the Jewry of Budapest, with the life-saving work of Mr. Wallenberg? ”Mr. Wallenbergs deeds and human dimensions have become distorted by time,” Mr. Levin concludes, ”and his story has been enshrouded in myth since his arrest in 1945 by the Soviets.”

Mr. Levin, who has been researching the Wallenberg story for the past decade, claims that Mr. Wallenbergs’ feats have been glorified with the passing of time. And such myth-making, he claims, can obstruct the moral importance of his mission, and its historic example. It is, therefore, important to nurture, without exception, the memories of all those who stood their ground during the bloody eras of both Nazism and Communism.

Wallenberg commission ends divided

A joint commission consisting of Russian and Swedish experts set up to investigate the fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg concluded in division in mid-January, after ten years of research on the mystery surrounding the diplomat. While the Russian representatives concluded that it was probable that Mr. Wallenberg was dead by 1947, Swedish researchers have maintained that the central mystery of Wallenberg’s death has remained unsolved.

”We feel that there is no reliable document concerning his death,” said Ambassador Jan Lundvik of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, also a member of the Commission, ”and we feel that there is no conclusive evidence that he actually died in 1947. On the other hand, there are a number of witness stories that he has been alive later. While these stories have not yet been proven, they have not been disproved.”

Mr. Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops in 1945. Russian officials now maintain that he died of a heart attack in 1947. Swedish panel members suspect that the diplomat may have died a violent death while a prisoner, yet they will continue to research reports by some who claim to have seen Wallenberg alive as late as the 1970s and 1980s.