Wallenberg book keys into suspicions about Soviets

The saga of Raoul Wallenberg ranks with other mysterious disappearances of the 20th century, including that of Amelia Earhart in the South Pacific, Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Africa and Bishop James Pike in Mexico. But one distinction in the Wallenberg case is that claims he was still alive continued for the better part of a half-century since his disappearance.

Some reports place Wallenberg in the Soviet prison system as late as the 1980s. Allen Gersten’s book “A Conspiracy of Indifference” recounts the almost 60-year struggle to discover Wallenberg’s fate, of keen interest not only to his family and Sweden, the nation he served, but to millions of people worldwide — Jews and non-Jews alike — who are inspired by his story. Wallenberg’s story, along with Oskar Schindler’s, is one of the most famous examples of the Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives to save Jews during the war. (Wallenberg was actually 1/16 Jewish.)

Wallenberg, the scion of one of Sweden’s most illustrious families, was a diplomat when he was sent to Budapest to assist in the escape of Hungary’s Jews. From July to December 1944, under Wallenberg’s leadership, more than 100,000 Jews were saved from the Nazis, primarily with the issuance of Swedish passports.

Soon after, Wallenberg was arrested and imprisoned by the Soviets, who claim he died in 1947. The postwar KGB was not impressed by or sympathetic to Wallenberg’s mission of saving Jews. Wallenberg was never seen again in the free world, but sightings by former prison-camp mates and even witnesses to his interrogations continued, leading to the hope that Wallenberg had survived well beyond World War II.

He went to Nazi-occupied Europe on behalf of the American-sponsored War Refugee Board, although the Russians charged that he was acting on behalf of the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite Wallenberg’s heroic efforts and substantial results in saving Hungarian and other Jews, the United States and Sweden did little after the war or for decades thereafter to ascertain whether he was still alive and where he might be incarcerated.

Is it possible that the man is still alive? (He would be 92.) The experts don’t think so, but the lack of a final resolution has haunted Wallenberg hunters.

The most credible explanation is that Wallenberg, who was in Budapest when the Red armies took the city in January 1945, was suspected by the Russians of being a spy and slapped into the Soviet gulag. After the war, Wallenberg was transferred to a labor camp in the Ural Mountains, sentenced to prison for espionage.

While the American, Swedish and Soviet governments continued to gather information and occasionally released copious files about Wallenberg and his wartime activities, none of these nations pressed his case, which Gersten aptly terms a “conspiracy of indifference.”

The failure to rescue the man who had rescued perhaps 100,000 Jews is of course a moral catastrophe. Lip service was given by successive American administrations, sufficient to keep the case open but hardly on the front burner of foreign affairs. For example, as late as the 1980s Secretaries of State Alexander Haig and George Shultz raised the matter with the Soviets, but to no avail. They continued to insist that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in 1947. 

While Simon Wiesenthal used to say that “Wallenberg is alive unless the Soviet officials prove the opposite,” his chances of surviving a half-century of Soviet incarceration and obscurity are practically nil. But since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, the Russians have been more forthcoming, welcoming Wallenberg’s family to Moscow to search archives.

America did take one worthwhile symbolic action: In October 1981, President Reagan signed controversial legislation making Raoul Wallenberg the second individual in our history to be made an honorary U.S. citizen. The other is Winston Churchill.

Leading the effort for such recognition was local Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and his wife, Annette, who have devoted themselves to the Wallenberg search, including the long legal battle to hold the Soviets accountable, which was achieved for a brief moment by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

But ultimately the Wallenberg saga is shrouded in mystery, and the full story may never be known. Even in the absence of a definitive account of his fate, all the world should remember, honor and celebrate the self-sacrifice of the remarkable, courageous Raoul Wallenberg.

“A Conspiracy of Indifference: The Raoul Wallenberg Story,” by Alan Gersten (359 pages, Xlibris, $22.99).


Sweden’s Wallenbergs explained in family biography