November 14, 2016

The persistence of hope


Raoul Wallenberg was, at last, declared dead on October 26th

The saviour of the Jews of Budapest disappeared in 1945 at the age of 32

With the blue-and-yellow “protection passes” he carried in that briefcase, a diplomat’s bluff made “authentic” with Swedish government stamps and decorative Swedish crowns, he saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary in a mere five-month tour in 1944. In the 31 safe houses he set up round Budapest, decked with huge Swedish flags, he fed, clothed and cared for thousands more. As a result he was made a citizen of Canada, Israel, Australia and the United States; awards and institutes were set up in his honour, and streets and parks named after him. Yet the many memorials to him lack one thing, a date of death. In 1945, aged 32, he disappeared; and ever after the world refused to let him go.

The last public sighting was with Russian soldiers round him and, in his hand, the briefcase, containing his plan to save more Jews. He was sent to prison in Russia, ending up in the Lubyanka in Moscow, where no file was kept on him, because (though he may have been a CIA asset) there was no case against him. The prison doctor claimed he died of a heart attack on July 17th 1947. But the doctor’s report had oddities about it, and was not believed. Another Russian officer said he had been shot. But a cleaning woman claimed to have seen him after that date; another prisoner said he had talked to a “Wallenberg” whose shadowy face he could not see; in 1951 an Italian reported that he had been in the next cell. In 1961 came a startling claim that he was alive, though weak, in a Soviet mental institution.

Emptying the trucks
Mystery was fortified by the cold war. The Russians would not co-operate to solve it until glasnost, in the 1990s, began to melt the ice. The Swedish government, too, was not keen to risk reviving scrutiny of its wartime behaviour, when the heroism of Wallenberg would be contrasted with pro-Nazi collaboration. Both countries would have preferred to let him lie. But without a date of death, that was impossible.

Besides, to those he had saved and their families, he was still alive. There was no forgetting the charismatic young Swede who had climbed onto cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz, kicked the doors open and handed out his passes, under the rifle fire of the astonished guards, to anyone who could grab one. There was no forgetting his ferocious arguments with the soldiers who, beside the Danube, were preparing to kill Jews and dump them in the river; these, too, he saved. His motto, from a letter home, was “happy to fight”.

To those who never saw him, he became a saviour angel and a legend; he was surely one of the 36 “hidden saints” who helped hard-pressed Jews in each generation. In Budapest several of his safe-houses survive on the streets where he walked, unsleeping, intent to save “as many as possible”. Well into this century, descendants of the saved still wanted to kiss his cheek, hug him and thank him.

But the refusal to think him dead was mostly shouldered by his family. The full extent of their dedication was slowly and painfully revealed to Ingrid Carlberg, Wallenberg’s biographer. For 30 years his mother Maj and his stepfather, Fredrik von Dardel, harried the Russian and Swedish governments. They sent letters to their “dear, beloved Raoul”, via officials, assuring him that his room was ready for him. Fresh flowers were placed daily beside his photograph. When in 1979 yet another lead proved fruitless, they committed suicide, leaving the instruction that the search for news should last until 2000. For Raoul was still legally alive.

Their son Guy and daughter Nina, Wallenberg’s step-siblings, took the task on, assembling a 50,000-page archive about Raoul. For Guy’s children, too, the lost man was a presence: a dark cloud over the family, even at mealtimes or on outings to the beach. Nina told Ms Carlberg she clung to the thought that one day, back home, Raoul would take his tin soldiers out of their boxes and enjoy arranging them again. Guy, hopeful in 1989 that he might find him on a visit to Moscow—even if mad or ill—practised singing “Baa Baa black sheep”, their childhood song, in case Raoul would recognise it.

Only this year did the family end the search. Guy and Nina were both dead, and for the first time the name Raoul—always reserved for the man who would return—had been bestowed on a new child. In March the Swedish Tax Agency was asked, if Raoul had not appeared to register by October 14th, to announce a legal date of death for him. Calculating five years since the “heart attack” in Lubyanka, neatened to the end of the month, this was given as July 31st 1952. The fiction served.

The family held their own memorial service at Lidingö, by the briefcase with his initials. No smiling figure came rushing through the birch trees, towards the lake, to pick it up. His work, though—the duty of each moral man to face down tyranny—would never be done. The briefcase waited, and its name was “Hope”.

Update: This article was amended on November 12th to include a reference to Raoul Wallenberg’s biographer, Ingrid Carlberg.

This article appeared in the Print Edition with the headline: The persistence of hope