Twenty-two years ago this Sunday, Raoul Wallenberg became an honorary citizen of the United States. The honor, though, was truly ours: This extraordinary man helped save tens of thousands of lives, including my wife’s and mine, while working under the direction of the American government.
Yet, the full truth about Wallenberg’s own fate remains unknown.
The international community, and most especially the American government, must redouble their efforts to establish the facts of what happened to him. Additional pressure must be brought to bear against Russia to open all archives related to his case, even if it means unleashing embarrassing secrets of the Soviet era – or more recent secrets, and not just Russian ones.
Anyone who knows Wallenberg’s story is aware that humanity owes him a huge debt; when so many others were less courageous or even complicit in the evil of their time, he chose to risk his privileged life in order to help friends and strangers alike.
The scion of a prominent Swedish family, Wallenberg was sought out by the U.S. War Refugee Board in Stockholm for a dangerous task: to rescue thousands of Hungarian Jews. At age 32 he was appointed secretary of the Swedish legation in Hungary, which received financial help from the United States and guidance from the War Refugee Board under the supervision of the American secretary of state.
The Nazis had already deported more than 400,000 Hungarian Jewish men, women and children to the camps. Only about 230,000 Jews were left in Budapest. Wallenberg set out at once to save them through courage, ingenuity, diligence and bluff. He devised creative and effective solutions, such as protective Swedish passes bearing official signatures and safe houses flying the Swedish flag, and he employed traditional techniques in use at the time, including threats and bribes. Wallenberg spared tens of thousands of people from deportation and death marches while Nazi power was at its peak, and many more from an all-out massacre as the desperate Germans withdrew toward the war’s end.
But Soviet military authorities arrested Wallenberg in January 1945, in violation of international law. Three months later, American Secretary of State Edward Stettinus instructed the American ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, to offer help on Wallenberg’s behalf to Sweden’s ambassador, who reportedly rebuffed the offer. This response was enough to signal to the United States that little could be done to help Wallenberg, even though it was known at the highest level of the State Department that his life could be in danger.
However, members of Congress continued to press Wallenberg’s case. In 1947, the prominent chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, appealed directly to Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson to intervene, but Acheson refused.
The State Department’s official position appears to have remained unchanged for decades. In 1973, 28 years after Wallenberg was taken into Russian custody, his ailing mother wrote to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pleading with him to seek information about her son from the Kremlin. The State Department’s European Bureau strongly supported her request, but for reasons that have never been adequately explained, Kissinger did not.
Meanwhile, congressional efforts to shine a spotlight on Wallenberg’s situation continued sporadically. As a new member of the House of Representatives in 1981, the first bill I introduced was to grant Wallenberg honorary American citizenship. At the time, only one other person had been made an honorary American citizen, Sir Winston Churchill. The legislation sped through Congress, and President Reagan signed it into law in the Rose Garden that fall.
Some of us in Congress continued to press the Russians through the years, using the vehicle of Wallenberg’s honorary citizenship. Unfortunately, our progress in solving this mystery has been minimal.
Today we know next to nothing about the ultimate fate of perhaps the greatest hero of the Holocaust era. Only two years ago, Sweden’s prime minister announced that ”it cannot be said” that Wallenberg ”is dead.”
Indeed, with the release of a detailed Swedish Foreign Office study, Prime Minister Goran Persson concluded ”there is no evidence of what happened” to Wallenberg. The report noted that the Swedish government had failed to take opportunities, particularly in the latter half of the 1940s, to obtain Wallenberg’s release.
And in March of this year, a top-level Swedish investigatory body, the Eliasson Commission, added little to the prime minister’s remarks but was even sharper in chastising the Swedish Foreign Ministry for its initial ”palpable lack of interest” in the Wallenberg case. Also criticized was the American failure at the beginning to assure ”a high degree of responsibility” in providing for Wallenberg’s security.
The Kremlin may insist today that Wallenberg was executed in the Lubyanka prison in July 1947, but it has offered no real proof, no documentation and no evidence to validate that claim. As early as the fall of 1991, Russia’s top archivist bitterly and publicly complained that the KGB had deliberately classified various documents of the Wallenberg case as ”operational intelligence” and, therewith, closed them to public scrutiny.
The Eliasson Commission called upon the Kremlin to release ”all the relevant material” about the Wallenberg case. In the final analysis, it said, responsibility for ascertaining ”the entire truth” about Wallenberg rests ”with the leadership of Russia.” Geopolitics would suggest that only the United States can offer the leverage to move that leadership.
October 5 not only marks the anniversary of the law making Wallenberg an honorary American citizen; it also happens to be the date that the cornerstone of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was laid at 100 Wallenberg Place in Washington.
Many honors have been given, and will continue to be given, to preserve the memory of Wallenberg’s achievements. Next month, he will be made an honorary citizen of Budapest. Such honors are helpful in educating the world about Wallenberg’s selfless and courageous work.
But that is not enough. The United States must pressure Russia to open all of its Wallenberg archives so the fate of this remarkable honorary citizen, who worked closely with this country in a time of international crisis but was evidently left stranded when he needed help most, can finally be learned.
* California Rep. Tom Lantos is the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.