The heroic life and mysterious disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg

A new biography leaves important questions about this WWII hero unanswered.
Francis Phillips | Apr 12 2016 | comment  

The case of Raoul Wallenberg has been a cause celebre, haunting Europe since the last War. This is because of the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance in Budapest in January 1945, when he attempted to negotiate with the Russians of behalf of the Jews remaining in the city. He was taken into “protective custody” and moved to the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. He never came home and despite exhaustive enquiries in the decades that followed, the answer to how, where and when he died is still not known for certain.

Ingrid Carlberg subtitles her biography “The heroic life of the man who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust”; that is what it is and how the public has perceived him. But after reading the book’s 600 pages I am still left with questions: what made Wallenberg think the Russians, who were engaged in a brutal retaliatory battle against Germany as they fought their way across Eastern Europe, would listen to him, a minor figure among the politicians and generals on the European stage at the time? Why did the Russians bother to detain him, given that he had a diplomatic passport? And why did Sweden, his own country, drag its feet for so many years amidst all the efforts of his family and others to force Russia to explain what had happened to him?

In raising these questions I do not doubt Wallenberg’s heroic endeavours. He is an example of a decent, humane and civilised man who found himself in Budapest in 1944 just as the Nazis were starting to organise the “final solution” of over 800,000 Hungarian Jews.  Until then they had been left in uneasy peace by the President of Hungary, Admiral Horthy. Although an ally of Germany, he had no intention of handing over his country’s Jewish population to his aggressive neighbour. In the event, he was left with no choice.

Wallenberg, who had business links with Budapest, was the man chosen for a Swedish-American mission to save as many Hungarian Jews as he could. He was in some ways an unusual choice. From an old Swedish family, distinguished in banking and business, he did not excel at school or exhibit particular talents. Well-educated, charming, sociable and keen to find a career, young Raoul did internships in architecture, banking and commerce, organised by his grandfather, the head of the family, before he was offered his first real job aged 32, as foreign director of the Mid-European Trading Company. This provided links with Budapest businessmen and was the reason that he was given the special assignment in the summer of 1944. Although not a diplomat, he received a diplomatic passport and was given the role of “special attaché” or “legation secretary”.

Wallenberg found himself in the middle of a nightmare. Writing home to his mother, he described “a tragedy of unimaginable proportions all around us.” In May 1944 the first deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz had begun, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann: four overloaded trains and trucks a day, with approximately 3,000 Jews in each. His colleague, Per Anger, deputy at the Swedish legation, had already begun issuing temporary passports to Jews with a Swedish connection, as well as “other kinds of more imaginative protective paperwork” such as “an illusory document that was not a visa but an assurance that a certain named Jew had the right to a Swedish travel visa”.

Wallenberg, put in charge of the legation’s humanitarian department, immediately discovered the purpose in life for which he had been searching. He widened his remit to include thousands more Jews; instead of the cumbersome business of trying to smuggle individuals out of the country, he organised a system of safe houses that posed as Swedish cultural centres and which were protected by the (neutral) Swedish flag. He devised another creative document, a “Schutz-Pass”, which included photo, stamp, signature and the Swedish crowns and which was printed in its thousands. As Carlberg comments, the Swedish legation’s new humanitarian director, “had ingeniously managed to create a Swedish passport that was not a passport.”

A gifted organiser and administrator, Wallenberg, with a staff of forty, worked indefatigably. To avoid “passport” inflation he was rigorous in the smokescreen bureaucracy he devised: a reception section, a registration section, an accounts department, an archive, a correspondence section as well as transportation and housing, all with the single aim of keeping the hunted Jewish population safe and alive. Food, clothing and even a hospital were organised for the thousands hiding from the deportations.

Then with the German Front collapsing and his colleagues returning to Sweden, Wallenberg voluntarily sought out the Red Army in the eastern sector of Budapest. I suspect that if he had known the risk he was taking he would not have done so. As it is, he is known to have been imprisoned in the Lubyanka and Lefortovo Prisons for two years without trial or conviction. After repeated pleas from his family the Russians finally let it be known he had died of a “heart attack” on July 17, 1947 while in protective custody.  Carlberg is painstaking in her portrait of this unassuming hero, but many questions remain unanswered.

Francis Phillips writes from Burckinghamshire in the UK.

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