Ingrid Carlberg’s Raoul Wallenberg is a painful book to read. The story is known. The outcome is known. But history cannot be unwritten.
This well-researched, detailed account relates the saga of Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in wartime Hungary in 1944. This long book conveys every morsel of information – from the important
to the trivial – yet we are still left with the most central question of all. Why did he fall into the black hole of history from which no light has emerged? What happened to him after his arrest by the invading Red Army in January 1945?
With the easy conquest of Norway and Denmark in 1940, Sweden was deeply concerned that the Nazi steamroller would
move in its direction. On the one hand, there was apprehension, but as Carlberg remarks, “a robust Germany” was also
admired. The Wallenberg banking family possessed extensive contacts in the German industrial and financial fraternity.
By late 1942, the news of the systematic extermination of the Jews began to permeate the Swedish psyche. The Swedish
press reported that 500 Norwegian Jews had been shipped “to the East.” Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that “the
Swedes have become insolent of late.”
Following the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, long queues of Jews formed outside the legations of the
neutral nations. This conveyed an urgency to American Jewry to protect the last large surviving Jewish community in Europe
as Hitler’s age of darkness was moving to its close. Roosevelt was persuaded to establish the War Refugee Board while the
Joint provided the funding. Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944 to ensure that Sweden contributed to this
Carl Lutz, the Swiss consul in Budapest, had already begun to issue Swiss protective passports to Hungarian Jews. The Red
Cross followed, as did Wallenberg – and suddenly by mid-August 1944, 2,000 Jews could claim to be Swedish citizens. Yet
as Carlberg incisively notes, more than 200,000 were still unprotected – and double that figure had already been deported.
Himmler – with an eye on personal survival and a negotiated peace with the Allies – ordered an end to the deportations, and their unforgiving facilitator Adolf Eichmann left Hungary.
Wallenberg was about to return home when the homegrown neo-Nazi Arrow Cross staged a coup. Jews now were being
slaughtered on the banks of the Danube, Swedish-protected locations were being raided and death marches to the Austrian
border were instituted to provide slave labor for the shrinking Third Reich. Eichmann returned to Budapest – and there
were several attempts to kill or injure Wallenberg. Yet despite this, many diplomats from the neutral countries stayed at their
As Carlberg relates, Wallenberg was able to avert a wholesale massacre of 70,000 Jews in the main ghetto by threatening to
charge general Gerhard Schmidthuber as a war criminal at the war’s end. Wallenberg was subsequently arrested on the instructions of Nikolai Bulganin, the Soviet deputy defense minister. But according to the author, the actual order came from Stalin himself. He soon found himself in a cell in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison.
Was Wallenberg being held in exchange for defectors? After all, tens of thousands had fled the Baltic States for Sweden when
the USSR invaded these countries. While the Swiss stood their ground, the Swedish Foreign Office followed a softly-softly approach – in not vigorously disputing the Soviet version that Wallenberg had been killed by the Germans. Wallenberg was moved first to Lefortovo prison and then back to the Lubyanka’s inner prison amidst a rising tide of public indignation in Sweden. Even Einstein wrote to Stalin. What happened next – or rather what may not have happened – is at the heart of Carlberg’s dissection. The formal Soviet explanation was that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in July 1947 – confirmed by the production of a solitary document several times during the coming decades. Was it a designed death for a 35-year-old with no previous history of heart problems?
Carlberg mentions the case of another prisoner, the American Isaiah Oggins, who had been sentenced to eight years in the USSR in 1939. His fate was extinction by lethal injection – could the same have happened to Wallenberg? Was it a case of
doing away with the problem by doing away with the person?
In the run-up to the Doctors’ Plot in 1953, a leading Wallenberg helper, Pál Szalai, was beaten into confessing that he had accidentally discovered Wallenberg’s body in Budapest, in the incriminating presence of two Hungarian Jewish leaders.
As Carlberg points out, such testimony would have been presented in yet another show trial, but Stalin unexpectedly
dropped dead. Within a year all the leading characters in this tragedy – Beria, Abakumov, Vyshinsky – had either been
executed or died of natural causes.
The author meticulously notes that every few years there were reported sightings of Wallenberg in the Gulag in parallel with
differing explanations of his demise. President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy in the late 1970s once more catalyzed interest in the West. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s enabled the return of Wallenberg’s personal belongings
to his family. As late as 2011, the Swedish prime minister asked Putin for answers. Like the Arlosoroff affair, the questions remain and the obfuscation lingers.
Carlberg has made a considerable effort to elicit the truth in this highly comprehensive account. Yet the void remains. Even so, Raoul Wallenberg’s example is a yardstick by which all of us should measure ourselves.
Jerusalem Post 6 April 2016