On January 17, 1945, probably the most inspiring rescuer of Jews targeted for extermination in the Holocaust, disappeared from the face of the earth.
Millions of words have been written about the feats of Raoul Wallenberg. Devoid of any diplomatic experience, he arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944 and within six months he managed to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis and their local henchmen.
In January 1945, sensing the war in Hungary was nearing its end, he set up a meeting with Marshal Rodyon Malinovsky, Supreme Commander of the Ukrainian Front, at the Red Army’s Debrecen headquarters. Refusing to heed his colleagues' warnings, Wallenberg instructed his loyal aide and chauffer, Vilmos Langfelder, to drive him there. On January 17, the two men drove the 195 kilometers that separated Budapest from Debrecen, a journey full of danger.
But instead of meeting Marshal Malinovsky, Wallenberg and Langfelder were arrested by SMERSH (Soviet Military Intelligence) and rushed to Moscow, most likely to the infamous Lubyanka prison. By most accounts, the two men were harshly interrogated and, after some time, executed.
76 years have elapsed since, and only fragments of information regarding Wallenberg's destiny have surfaced.
One of them was revealed to me back in 2006, by the then-Deputy Chief of Mission of the Russian Federation in Washington D.C., Mr. Alexander Darchiev.
Darchiev is one of the most senior and seasoned diplomats in the Russian Foreign Service. For several years he headed the North American Desk and nowadays he is the Ambassador in Ottawa, Canada.
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Darchiev's letter came in response to a letter I had sent weeks earlier to President Vladimir Putin, in my capacity as founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. I respectfully urged the Russian head of state to allow free and unfettered access to the KGB archives to shed light on the fate and whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg.
I clarified that our NGO was not intending to blame Russia for Wallenberg's disappearance, as we understood the historical context and made a clear differentiation between Stalin's Soviet Union and the present-day Russian Federation.
Mr. Darchiev's response reiterated Russia’s official position, as elucidated by the Russian delegation to the bilateral Working Group which investigated the circumstances of Wallenberg's fate:
"Responsibility for the death of Mr. Wallenberg lies with the USSR leadership at that time and on J.V. Stalin personally. No other authority could deal with a Swedish diplomat, a representative of a neutral state, a member of the 'Wallenberg House,' well known abroad and to the Soviet Government."
I think Ambassador Darchiev's reply is reasonable: Wallenberg’s death was Stalin’s call. But at the same time, it is hard to believe that the detention and probable execution of such a high-profile figure could have been made without leaving an extensive paper trail in the KGB archives.
If that is the case, why is Russia still so reluctant to allow access to the relevant archives? This question remains unanswered.
Why Raoul Wallenberg was apprehended in the first place and most likely executed? To be sure, Stalin was a ruthless and paranoid dictator. Human lives meant nothing to him. Perhaps, he thought Wallenberg was an American spy that could be used as a bargaining chip in Russia's post-war negotiations with her former allies.
Mr. Darchiev's letter features the following revealing sentence: "[T]he 'Wallenberg House' [was] well known abroad and to the Soviet Union."
Yes, the Wallenberg family was one of the most powerful and influential economic players in Sweden (that is even true today, to a great extent).
Their conglomerate had huge stakes in Swedish industrial and financial groups. During the war years, the family businesses were co-managed by Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg (first cousins of Raoul's father, who passed away a few months before his son's birth). Amidst Sweden's neutrality, the Wallenbergs engaged in profitable trade transactions with both Allied and Axis powers. Marcus was in charge of the deals with the former and Jacob with the latter.
According to "The Art of Cloaking – The Case of Swedish Ownership," a fascinating book written by two Dutch intelligence experts, Gerald Aalders and Cees Wiebes, the Wallenberg group allegedly engaged not only in trade with the Nazis, supplying them with vital raw materials for their war effort, but also used the family's Enskilda Bank as a front to disguise the overseas subsidiaries of major German companies involved in the Nazi war effort, such as Bosch, Krupp and IG Farben, to protect them from post-war punitive measures such as confiscation by the Americans.
Had Stalin known this, one cannot rule out that he intended to blackmail the Wallenbergs by holding Raoul, their relative,as a hostage. Alas, neither the Swedish government nor the Wallenberg family displayed any real efforts to achieve Raoul's release, other than some perfunctory gestures. That being the case, it is possible that Stalin lost his patience, saw that Raoul Wallenberg did not in fact offer leverage, and reached the conclusion that he was expendable.
When I founded the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, together with the late U.S. Congressman and Holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos, I understood that our NGO should preserve and divulge Raoul's singular legacy, but at the same time, we should not leave any stone unturned in an effort to bring him back home, dead or alive.
For many years we have worked together with Raoul’s late half-brother, Guy von Dardel, in an effort to achieve this goal. We have also been in close contact with his beloved younger half-sister, Nina Lagergren, who passed away in 2019, aged 98. We continue to accompany Raoul's grand-nieces, Louise de Dardel and Marie Dupuy, in their quest to get answers.
Raoul's mother, Maj and his step-father, Fredrik von Dardel, could not bear their pain, and took their own lives in 1979.
For as long as Raoul Wallenberg remains a hero without a grave, we shall persist in our struggle to secure credible answers concerning his fate.
Baruch Tenembaum is the Founder of The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation