”I have no doubts that Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947.”
So noted the newly emerged diary of Ivan Serov, head of the KGB between 1954 and 1958 during the post-Stalinist thaw, regarding the fate of the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in wartime Budapest. It seemed to confirm that Raoul Wallenberg had not died of a heart attack at the age of 34 – the Soviet explanation in 1957 – and that he had been cremated without any autopsy.
The late Mr Serov’s granddaughter discovered the diary in a suitcase, bricked into a wall during renovations of the family dacha, and she has now published it in Moscow.
Mr Wallenberg’s actions to save Jews in Nazi occupied Europe were profound and successful. At his instigation, the Swedes, the Swiss, the Vatican and other neutral nations issued passports to Hungarian Jews in 1944, and safe houses were established. At the war’s end, Mr Wallenberg averted a massacre of 70,000 Jews in the main ghetto by threatening General Gerhard Schmidthuber that he would face charges as a war criminal.
Over 70 years have passed since Mr Wallenberg’s disappearance – and despite the widespread suspicion that he was indeed killed in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, there has been no proof. In 1945, Swedish diplomats dithered. They found it difficult to adapt after six years of studied neutrality, and the now post-war Communist Hungarians provided little information.
Joseph Stalin’s paranoia about western spies and Zionist agents deepened amid US fears that the Cold War would suddenly turn hot. Whereas other foreigners were gradually released from the Gulag – sometimes after many decades – the fate of Mr Wallenberg evolved into an enigma that is still with us. Only a few years ago, the Swedish prime minister once more raised the case with Vladimir Putin. Last year, historians submitted a 33-page list of questions to the Russian government.
Mr Serov’s predecessor, Viktor Abakumov, is credited with overseeing the arrest, torture and – often – execution of Soviet Jewish intelligentsia. This week marks the anniversary when, on 12 August 1952, Jewish writers such as Peretz Markish, along with Old Bolsheviks as Solomon Lozovsky – who refused to recant during their trials – were murdered in Lubyanka.
Mr Abakumov had been arrested the year before and, during his interrogation, claimed that the order to kill Mr Wallenberg had come directly from Stalin and his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. Mr Abakumov wrote to Mr Molotov about the Wallenberg case on July 17, 1947, listed in the KGB register as letter 3044/a, which was probably a notification that the execution had been carried out. The actual letter has never been located.
Mr Serov has also stated in his diary that he had seen the Wallenberg file and the cremation certificate, signed by the chief warden of Lubyanka prison and the head executioner of the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB), Vasili Blokhin. But when he was later interrogated, Mr Blokhin said that he had no recollection of the Wallenberg case.
Mr Blokhin had spent his career murdering people at Stalin’s behest. He personally dispatched high-ranking figures and oversaw the mass-killings during the Great Purge in the 1930s.
Mr Wallenberg’s family has greeted these new claims with scepticism and posed more questions to the Russians. They have asked to see the original diary and the entries about Mr Wallenberg. The Russians have always denied that there was ever a Wallenberg file. Mr Serov’s comments dispute this and the family has asked Russia to hand over this piece of evidence. There are other questions about the reliability of Mr Serov’s recollections.
The fundamental questions remain. Why was he killed and not released? Why did the Soviets, during both the Krushchev and Gorbachev periods, as well as under the post-Soviet regimes of Yeltsin and Putin, not categorically put the matter to rest?
There is a monument in London, a street in Washington, a park in Lima all named after Mr Wallenberg. The British descendants of Hungarian Jews who owe their lives to Mr Wallenberg must now run into the hundreds. Films and operas are made about him. Yet there are no unequivocal answers as to his end. The anguish becomes more acute as time recedes. Will the Wallenberg affair remain one of history’s unanswered questions?
Jewish Chronicle 12 August 2016