January 17, 2001

Wallenberg’s End, a Mystery that Persists After 56 Years


The Controversy Over the Fate of the Swedish Diplomat who Saved Thousands of Jewish Lives Continues.

  • The Russians accused him of being a spy and arrested him.
  • He was a forgotten hero for years and is now remembered
  • Russia and Sweden disagree on how he died

On January 13, 1945, a man waited on foot next to a large Swedish flag, for the arrival of Soviet troops that were to liberate Hungary. He believed that, finally, he would be saved. He was very mistaken. Four days later he was detained with his chauffer, accused of being an American spy and nothing was heard from him ever since.

Today, we are at the 56th anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance. The fate met by this young diplomat who managed to save thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazism’s grasp still remains a mystery. During the last decade, a Russian-Swedish commission of experts was determined to reconstruct the puzzle that is still missing most of its parts.

The 71 volumes of documents recently published by the investigators were not able to shed any light into the seemingly black hole that swallowed Wallenberg. Not even the very members of the commission managed to come to an agreement: the Russians insisted for years that the Swedish prisoner had died in 1947 of a heart attack in the frightening Lubianka Prison.

Then, this past December, the Kremlin contradicted itself and revealed that the Soviet Secret Service had shot Wallenberg, that very same year, 1947.

Rumors and Legends

On the other hand, the Swedish members of the panel believe that the hero without a grave lived beyond 1947. Many say that he was held in the Stalinist prisons in order to be exchanged for Soviet deserters to the West. Others assure us that he died in a Psychiatric Clinic as late as 1989. Swedish Prime Minister, Goran Persson affirmed, ”it is not impossible” that his compatriot is still alive.

”Until now the investigations have not yielded any concrete evidence. But we will continue working until we come to the truth”. Correspondingly, Nina Lagergren, Wallenberg’s half-sister, sounds unbreakable, as she has always been.

For more than half century, this 79 year-old woman, with four children and ten grandchildren never stopped her search for her brother. False leads, devastating information or, worse yet, many years without any news, did not discourage Lagergren’s crusade, a legacy she says she inherited from her mother.

”Mother died in 1979, convinced that she could have done more to find her son”, commented Lagergren to La Nación from Stockholm. She evokes the anxiety felt by Maj Wising, Nina and Raoul’s mother, with her tense fists and clenched teeth, waiting in vain for the telephone to ring.

”The important thing is to show the world that one man can make a difference”, she points out. At the moment, Lagergren is one of the heads of The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a Buenos Aires based NGO that seeks to make known his example of solidarity.

Audacious and Non-Conventional

Without a doubt, Raoul Wallenberg did make a difference. Twenty thousand Jews (One-hundred thousand by some accounts) can attest to that. Thanks to him, they cheated certain death in the Nazi extermination camps.

The Council of War Refugees of the United States chose the young Swede, who was born in 1912 to a prominent dynasty of bankers and diplomats, because he was a citizen of a neutral country, in order to stop the deportations in Hungary. The world began to understand the real meaning behind Hitler’s ”Final Solution” after two Jews who were able to escape Auschwitz described what was happening behind the barbed wire fences and so became the first living witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust.

When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944, more than four hundred thousand men, women and children had been sent to the gas chambers and crematoria of Austria and Poland. Two hundred thirty thousand remained.

The thirty-one year old abandoned traditional diplomacy and began employing more non-conventional methods in order to savethe most possible number of lives. Everything became valid, from extortion to bribery.

The first mission undertaken by the audacious diplomat was to design the Shutzpasses, Swedish passports that bestowed immunity on its holders. Noting the fact that Germans were easily impressed by colorful symbols, Wallenberg printed the documents in the colors of the crown, blue and gold, and furnished them with the corresponding governmental seals and signatures. He persuaded the Germans to allow him to issue 4,500 visas, although he distributed three times that amount.

He would roam the station platforms and even climb on train cars’ roofs, packed with Jews on the verge of being deported, in order to hand out Swedish Safe-Conduct documents to as many people as could reach them.

Even more daring were his interventions on the death marches. He would get in the middle of the human caravans and signaling to an astonished man he would scream: ”Hey, you, hand me your Swedish passport and get on this line.” He would repeat this as many times as he could, while the initially baffled Jews would search their pockets for any type of identification, be it a driver’s license or a birth certificate.

Candidates for extermination would then hide in the Swedish Houses, 32 buildings that Wallenberg rented and gave them names like ”The Swedish Library” or ”The Swedish Red Cross”. There flags of that Nordic country would wave, all a symbol of diplomatic immunity. There, fifteen thousand Jews found shelter. And it was there where Wallenberg waited, on foot, for the triumphant arrival of the Red Army.

Copyright © 2001 La Nación | All rights reserved
Translation: IRWF