Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg; drawing by David Levine

The horrifying story of the sufferings of Hungarian Jewry at the hands of the Germans has most recently been studied in detail in a monumental work, Randolph Braham’s The Politics of Genocide.1 When the Germans occupied Hungary, there were 246,803 Jews in Budapest (over 800,000 in the entire country), including 62,350 converts to Christianity, or descendants of converts—whom, of course, the Germans did not distinguish from Jews. Of this total, 100,803 were killed in one way or another. That the figure was not higher was in part due to the fact that deportation of Jews to the murder camps was halted by defeat in the war, and in part to the efforts of both Jews and non-Jews and of the latter particularly of the Swiss and Swedish governments. When the threat to the Jews became apparent, the US government appealed to the neutrals to do what they could to save the Jews of Hungary. The Swiss consulate in Budapest played a valiant role in issuing passports to Jews, especially children. But it was the dramatic activity by the Swedish special diplomatic envoy, Raoul Wallenberg, that has caught the imagination of the free world, and remained a legend ever since.

The specialist in the murder of Jews, Eichmann, devoted himself to the task of deporting the entire Jewish population of Hungary for incineration in the death camps (if they had not previously been done to death by slave labor) with a dedication to duty and an enthusiasm that still seem hard to credit. Whether this was due to ideology, ambition, or psychopathology is hardly relevant: our experience of communism and its sister-faith Nazism should by now have taught us that it is not the cause, but the obsessive capacity of the individual to persuade himself that he is serving a cause, that is the driving force of those who are smitten by the disease of totalitarian ideology. By the time Wallenberg arrived in the Swedish legation in Budapest, Eichmann’s activity was well under way.

Raoul Wallenberg came from a distinguished Swedish family. He had studied architecture in the United States and had traveled a good deal before settling down to a career. His travels included a visit to Palestine, where he met Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. One of his great-grandfathers was Jewish. At the time of his appointment to Budapest at the age of thirty-two, he was the business partner of a Jewish refugee and had seen a good deal of Nazi anti-Semitic policy in the occupied countries of Europe which he visited. When President Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board (WRB), with the task of saving Jews and others from Nazi persecution, the board’s representative in Stockholm, Ivar C. Olsen, had included in his advisory committee Wallenberg’s partner, Koloman Lauer. It was through him that Raoul eventually came to be selected as the Swedish diplomatic officer of the WRB in Budapest, and was (secretly) given full financial and other support by the WRB, as well as complete freedom to use whatever means and methods he thought fit in order to achieve the main object. He arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944.

The sufferings of the Jews of Budapest under Eichmann’s direction—especially after the resignation of the regent Miklos Horthy, when the Hungarian Arrow Cross Nazis took over—have been repeatedly recounted, and Mr. Bierman tells the story once again most skillfully, with much detail, including a long quotation from a diary of the thirteen-year-old Jewish girl Eva Heyman, which has survived. It is now in the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem. Wallenberg’s organization, which at its height included 355 employees, forty physicians, two hospitals, and a soup kitchen, worked indefatigably, by whatever means it could, to rescue as many Jews as possible from deportation and death. The principal means was the issue of passports, purporting to show that the recipient was a citizen of Sweden. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the claim was fictitious, but it served. It was a measure of Wallenberg’s success that Eichmann resorted to the favored Nazi (and, of course, NKVD and KGB) method of staging a road accident, which failed to kill him. Eichmann remarked, smiling, as Wallenberg left after protesting about this incident, “I will try again.”

Wallenberg repeatedly showed extraordinary courage in confronting German and Hungarian officials, arguing or bluffing in order to achieve his object of rescuing yet another few Jews from their clutches. It was these personal interventions by Wallenberg in the Budapest ghetto or in the deportation convoys that deservedly earned him his legendary reputation as a hero to whom thousands of Jews turned in the hope that he would save them. The tributes of those who survived, especially if they owed their survival to his efforts, bear eloquent witness to his heroism—which will stand examination even in the face of efforts in some quarters to belittle his significance in the saving of Hungarian Jews.


How many did he save? Insofar as the question is relevant, since his achievement does not depend on the number of successes but on the nature of the effort, the evidence is conflicting. Braham gives the figure of passports issued as “well over 10,000,” but this is apparently not the total, according to him, of all rescues achieved by Wallenberg and other Swedes. Wallenberg himself, in a report in December 1944, gave a different, somewhat higher total, which apparently included “passports” of nationalities other than Swedish. (The Swiss, the Papal Nuncio, and the Portuguese also issued emigration papers.) The frequently quoted figure of 100,000 is clearly impossible, and probably derives from over-eulogistic statements of Wallenberg’s colleague, Per Anger, that by staying in Budapest to the end he “in effect” saved the lives of 100,000 people.

When the Russians reached Debrecen (120 miles from Budapest) and set up a Provisional Hungarian government there, Bierman tells us, Wallenberg was anxious to make contact with the Soviet army in order to appeal for emergency food and medical supplies. He also had an ambitious plan for restoring life to normal after the Nazi defeat, to be paid for by the United States, including a search for missing persons, help with housing, and employment opportunities. Wallenberg explained to the first Soviet military outpost that he wished to be taken to Marshal Malinovsky in Debrecen. On January 17, 1945, a Soviet major and escort accompanied Wallenberg and his driver on what purported to be a visit to the marshal. They were never seen as free men again. At some stage they were handed over to the NKVD, and by the first week in February they were prisoners in Moscow in the Lubianka.

The motives of the NKVD present little mystery. They would quite naturally have discounted any humanitarian motives for Wallenberg’s activities in Budapest. His links with the US, with Jewish organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee, and with the Red Cross would have been conclusive proof in NKVD eyes of an international capitalist conspiracy, appropriate enough in a member of a famous banking family; while the issue of dubious Swedish passports was, of course, evidence of an effort to help Nazis to escape. The rescue of Jews may well have been linked in the minds of the Soviet authorities with Himmler’s ploys for a separate peace, coupled with trade in Jewish lives. If Wallenberg was naïve enough to discuss his rehabilitation plans with the Russians, their worst suspicions would have been confirmed. These conjectures are enforced by the close questioning for several days by the NKVD of officials of the Swedish legation (who were illegally interned in a camp) in which the activities of Wallenberg were the main topic.

The most lamentable part of the story Bierman tells is of the pusillanimous behavior of the Swedish government during the next few years, of which the facts only came out much later when, as a result of public outcry, the documents on the case were published. The government brusquely rejected US offers of help in negotiating with the Soviet authorities. In spite of the fact that both the Soviet ambassador in Sweden and the deputy foreign minister (the notorious NKVD official Dekanozov) stated that Wallenberg was in protective custody and would be back soon, the Swedish ambassador in Moscow seems to have convinced himself that he was dead, and that to press for his release would merely irritate the Russians. When, in June 1946, as the result of internal pressure in Sweden, he had an interview with Stalin on the subject of Wallenberg, he expressed his own conviction that Wallenberg “fell victim either to a road accident or bandits.” Not unnaturally, having been handed this way out on a plate, the foreign minister, Vyshinsky, followed it up with a denial that Wallenberg had ever been in Soviet territory. (“What!” said the Swedish foreign minister, Östen Undén, to a member of the Wallenberg Committee who was pressing him to take action on reports that Wallenberg was alive in a Soviet jail. “Do you believe that Mr. Vyshinsky is lying?” and was outraged when the lady replied, “Yes, I do.”)

The opportunity lost in these years by Swedish cowardice in dealing with the Russians would never recur. In the early period there might conceivably have been some exchange arrangement. Once the Russians were committed to their denial that Wallenberg had ever been in their hands, and to their subsequent prevarications on the question, this kind of deal became impossible. (The Swiss government reacted to the disappearance of one of its diplomats in 1945 by arresting two known Soviet spies, and eventually effecting an exchange.)

If the intention of the Swedish government was to stifle the Wallenberg story for fear of irritating the Russians, it did not succeed. That the case was kept before the public eye was mainly owing to the efforts of determined people—Wallenberg’s mother, stepfather, and half-sister, his close colleague in Budapest Per Anger, such writers as Rudolf Philipp and Jenö Lévai, and many others, including most recently Mr. Bierman himself, who prepared a documentary film for the BBC. Pressure and publicity mounted and were fueled by repeated reports that Wallenberg was still alive in the Soviet Union. Wallenberg committees now exist in Sweden, Great Britain, and the US. Wallenberg has repeatedly been put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Congress has passed a bill declaring him to be a US citizen, on the initiative of Congressman Tom Lantos, who at the age of sixteen was saved by Wallenberg. The full facts are now available, since the Swedish government has published some 7,000 documents in three White Books. But is Wallenberg alive?


The Soviet authorities for a time stuck to the answer that the Swedish ambassador had put into Stalin’s mouth in 1946—that Wallenberg had been killed in Hungary in 1945. Then in 1957 the Soviet foreign minister produced a document, allegedly addressed to the notorious Abakumov, dated July 17, 1947, which stated that Wallenberg had died suddenly in his prison cell of a heart attack. This new version, to which the Soviet authorities have adhered ever since, had the further advantage of shifting the blame for Wallenberg’s death on to one of the NKVD officials executed in 1954, after Stalin’s death, for illegal actions committed while he was head of internal security.

The evidence of those who claim to have had contact with Wallenberg since his capture by the NKVD falls into three categories. It should be emphasized that, stimulated out of its lethargy or cowardice by mounting public and private pressure, the Swedish government has, since the Fifties, pursued a much more vigorous policy in its dealings with the Soviet authorities. Its protests and demands have achieved no results. But the fact that a quite different degree of importance was being paid by the Swedish government to the evidence that Wallenberg was alive meant that this evidence was sifted and tested with vigorous care by expert minds.

Into the first category falls the evidence of an Italian diplomat, Claudio de Mohr, who shared a cell adjoining Wallenberg’s and communicated with him by wall-tapping code until (as he said) April 1948; and of no fewer than six returning German prisoners who had either shared a cell with Wallenberg or communicated with him by wall-tapping. There was the additional evidence of three men who had shared a cell with Wallenberg’s driver. The stories of the Germans showed that Wallenberg was alive up to the summer of 1947, when he was removed from Lefortovo to Vladimir prison. Their evidence also suggests that de Mohr must have been mistaken about the date April 1948.

Into the second category falls the evidence of five returning prisoners, sifted and tested with the same care, which strongly suggests that Wallenberg was alive in the mid-Fifties. But most striking of all was information given to a distinguished physician, Professor Nanna Svartz, by a Russian medical colleague when both were attending a congress in Moscow in January 1961, that Wallenberg was alive, in a mental hospital, and had indeed been his patient. Dr. Svartz had no doubt whatever about the conversation, which took place in German, which the Russian physician spoke well. However, when the question was taken up by the Swedish government, the Soviet authorities denied all knowledge of the matter, and the Russian doctor denied that the conversation had ever taken place. In general, the Soviet authorities have at all times taken great care to silence those who had had contact with Wallenberg—the fellow prisoners mentioned above, for example, were interrogated about the persons whom they had told of meeting or conversing with Wallenberg, and all concerned were placed in solitary confinement for several months afterward.

The late Sixties and early Seventies produced little reliable evidence beyond rumors. But between 1977 and 1979 very circumstantial evidence that Wallenberg was alive in 1975 reached Israel, and hence the Swedish government. This took the form of messages to a Jewish woman in Israel, formerly of Soviet nationality, from her father who claimed to have met in a prison hospital in 1975 “a Swede who had been in Soviet prisons for thirty years.” The authenticity of the evidence was established by the fact that the woman’s father, who had been released from prison, was rearrested, and his family was warned by the KGB not to spread anti-Soviet slanders. The anxiety of the KGB to prevent any information about Wallenberg leaking out, as well as the fact that they have on a number of occasions tried to circulate rumors designed to show that he had been killed in Hungary in 1945, strongly suggest that the Soviet authorities have something to conceal.

The evidence seems to establish that, at the very least, Wallenberg was probably alive in Soviet captivity up to 1975. He would be sixty-nine now, if still alive. He was in good health in 1945, and certainly prisoners in Soviet prisons and camps have survived as long as thirty-six years before now. Whether there is any hope whatever of inducing the Soviet authorities to release him, if he is alive, is another matter. They are very heavily committed to the story, almost certainly a lie, which they have maintained since 1957. According to Wallenberg’s stepfather, Fredrik von Dardel, one of the Soviet reasons for refusing to release him is fear that he could become a national Hungarian anti-Soviet hero.2 This is slightly borne out by the fact that a statue designed as a memorial to Wallenberg commissioned by Budapest Jews with permission of the authorities was seized and removed by Russian troops before it could be erected—and (with slight modifications) reappeared in Debrecen as a monument to man’s struggle against disease.

Mr. Begin apparently requested President Carter to take up the Wallenberg case with the Soviet authorities. The president in fact raised the question with Brezhnev, but it is not known what response if any his inquiries evoked. Whether the present US administration will take further steps in response to the powerful lobby which now exists remains to be seen. In general, however, Israel has shown little interest in the Wallenberg case. Mr. Bierman found hardly any Israelis among those he interviewed who were even prepared to consider seriously the possibility that he was still alive, or who knew much about his career in Budapest. A tree has now been planted in the avenue of trees at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, to commemorate “a righteous gentile.” (Are gentiles only to be regarded as “righteous” if they help to save Jews, as the title of this avenue implies?) One would have expected more generosity of spirit from Israel.

This Issue

November 5, 1981