Its time to learn the fate of Raoul Wallenberg

The first legislation I introduced as a new congressman 25 years ago was a bill to pay a debt from my adolescence. My wife, Annette, felt a similar obligation.

We owed our lives to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who had saved us during the Holocaust. At that time he was thought by many to be alive in the Soviet gulag, but nobody was sure. His fate remains unknown to this day.

The international community, and most especially the U.S. government, must redouble efforts to establish the facts of what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. Additional pressure must be brought to bear against Russia to open all archives related to his case, even if it means unleashing embarrassing secrets of the Soviet era — or more recent secrets, and not just Russian ones.

Anyone who knows Wallenberg’s story is aware that not just a few individuals, but all of humanity are beholden to him. When so many others were less courageous or even complicit in the evil of their time, he chose to risk his privileged life to help strangers. 

Wallenberg went to Budapest in 1944 trying to preserve the remaining Jewish population. The Nazis had already deported more than 400,000 Hungarian Jewish men, women and children to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Only some 230,000 Jews were left in the capital. He set out at once to save them through courage, ingenuity, diligence and chutzpah.

One of his most clever actions was to produce documents — known as “Schutzpaesse” or protective passports — conferring Swedish citizenship on anyone who carried them.

Wallenberg saved tens of thousands from deportation and death marches while Nazi power was at its peak, and many more from an all-out massacre as the desperate Germans withdrew at the war’s end.

But Soviet military authorities arrested Wallenberg in January 1945, in violation of international law. Three months later, U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinus instructed the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, Averill Harriman, to offer help on Wallenberg’s behalf to Sweden’s ambassador, who reportedly rebuffed the offer. This response was enough to signal to the United States that little could be done to help Wallenberg, even though it was known at the highest level of the State Department that his life could be in danger.

Long before I was elected to Congress, Annette and I had tried to raise awareness of this injustice. Compounding it was Wallenberg’s initial commission to Budapest: The scion of a prominent Swedish family, he had been sought out by the U.S. War Refugee Board in Stockholm for the dangerous task of rescuing Jews in German-occupied Hungary. At age 32 he was appointed a secretary in the Swedish legation, and his efforts were financed by the United States under the supervision of the U.S. secretary of state.

So our country, which had asked Raoul Wallenberg to risk everything during the Nazi death-grip on Hungary, could not in good conscience abandon him under Hungary’s next occupiers.

Members of the U.S. Congress had tried to press Wallenberg’s case. In 1947, the prominent chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, appealed directly to Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson to intervene, but Acheson refused.

The State Department’s official position appears to have remained unchanged for decades. In 1973, 28 years after Wallenberg was taken into Soviet custody, his ailing mother wrote to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pleading with him to seek information about her son from the Kremlin. The State Department’s European Bureau strongly supported her request, but for reasons that have never been adequately explained, Kissinger did not act.

During those years, Annette worked through schools, social service groups and publications to focus the public on Wallenberg’s plight. She established the first International Wallenberg Committee, the legacy of which remains today.

So it was a natural step for me as a freshman congressman to use whatever influence I had to assist in drawing sustained attention to Raoul Wallenberg.

Our hope was that we could save him by using a tactic similar to the one he had so creatively applied during the war to save us and so many others: We would create an American citizenship document to give the United States an opportunity and reason to work for his protection.

At the time, only one other person had been made an honorary U.S. citizen: Sir Winston Churchill. The legislation sped through Congress and was signed into law on Oct. 5, 1981. Some of us in Congress continued to press the Soviets through the years, using the vehicle of Wallenberg’s honorary citizenship. Unfortunately, our progress in solving this mystery has been minimal.

Today we know next to nothing about the postwar years of perhaps one of the Holocaust era’s greatest heroes. Indeed, with the release of a detailed Swedish Foreign Office study not long ago, then-Prime Minister Goran Persson concluded “there is no evidence of what happened” to Wallenberg. The report noted that the Swedish government had failed to take opportunities, particularly in the late 1940’s, to obtain Wallenberg’s release.

And in March 2003, a top-level Swedish investigatory body, the Eliasson Commission, added little to Persson’s remarks. But it was sharper in chastising the Swedish Foreign Ministry for its initial “palpable lack of interest” in the Wallenberg case. Also criticized was the U.S. failure at the beginning to take “a high degree of responsibility” in providing for Wallenberg’s security.

The Kremlin may insist today that Wallenberg died in the Lubyanka prison in July 1947, but it has offered no real proof, no documentation and no evidence to validate that claim. As early as fall 1991, when Soviet-era records were being make public, Russia’s top archivist bitterly and publicly complained that the KGB had deliberately classified various documents of the Wallenberg case as “operational intelligence” and, therewith, closed them to public scrutiny.

Many honors have been given, and will continue to be given, to preserve the memory of Raoul Wallenberg’s achievements. A bust of him stands in the U.S. Capitol. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is located at 100 Wallenberg Place in Washington, D.C. And three years ago, he was made an honorary citizen of Budapest. Such honors are helpful in educating the world about Wallenberg’s selfless and courageous work.

But that is not enough. The United States must pressure Russia to open all its Wallenberg archives so the fate of this remarkable honorary citizen, who worked closely with this country in a time of international crisis but was evidently left stranded when he needed help most, can finally be known.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and the founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.