Wallenberg: Missing Hero

I am not in the habit of writing letters willy-nilly to foreign heads of state.

However, I just sent an e-mail to Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia.  It was mostly copied-and-pasted from a suggested letter I found online.  It begins:

Dear President,
It has been sixty years since Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands during World War II was captured by the Soviet army. His fate is still unknown. One thing is certain - he is still in your country.

To my shame, a few weeks ago, I didn't know the name Raoul Wallenberg.  Reading his biography by Kati Marton changed that forever.  Upon completing the book last night, I felt compelled to do something--hence the note addressed to the Kremlin.

Raoul Wallenberg led a fascinating life.  The son of Sweden's equivalent of the Rockefellers, he studied in America, travelled the world--and then found his calling as savior of the beleaguered Jews of Budapest.  Commissioned by neutral Sweden and the U.S., he moved to Hungary's capital city near the end of World War II, and began the seemingly-impossible task of pulling Jewish men, women, and children from the deadly jaws of Adolf Eichmann and the Third Reich.  He came up with a brilliant system of issuing Swedish "passports" to thousands of Budapest Jews.  They were essentially worthless, but he and his staff distributed them with such bold confidence that the occupying Nazis were set back on their heels in confused hesitation.  Thus he bought precious time as the Jews waited for the Allied liberation of their city.

Whenever a pogrom was organized, whenever another batch of starving Jews were rounded up for a march to the labor camps, whenever they were lined up along the Danube to be shot and drowned, the Swede would show up.  In his politely firm and quietly confident manner, he would elbow past the Nazi soldiers and announce, "I am Wallenberg."  And a ripple of hope would move through the masses of slump-shouldered people with ragged stars of David sewn to their thin coats.  Many of them would get to go home that night, clutching their "passports".  One more hellish day had been survived, thanks to Wallenberg.

There were assassination attempts, there were threatening letters from Nazi officials, there were exhausting weeks and months on end with little sleep.  Perhaps worst of all there was the constant knowledge that he couldn't possibly save everyone that needed him.  But Wallenberg never seemed to waver.  While much of the world turned a blind eye to Hitler's atrocities, Wallenberg did something about it.

Yes, Raoul Wallenberg's remarkable life perhaps can only be surpassed by the tragic mystery of his death.  Russia's "liberation" of Hungary in 1945 was just a violent transfer of power from one totalitarian regime to another.  Instead of being treated like the hero that he was, Wallenberg was taken prisoner by the Red Army and transported to Moscow, under the accusation that he was a spy for the capitalist West.  He was never to be seen a free man again.

The Gulag was a barely-survivable prison system at its best, but Wallenberg was treated even sterner than the usual prisoner.  He was a pawn the Russians could perhaps use as future leverage with their enemies.  Solitary confinement was the rule, therefore, likely with frequent interrogations and torture sessions.  He was denied a trial, forbidden any communication with his family or the outside world, refused anything close to proper nutrition or hygiene.

It is undisputed that Wallenberg endured such conditions for at least two years.  Beyond that, his tracks are hard to trace.  Both Sweden and America were hesitant to confront Russia about the mistreatment of their diplomat. The Cold War was settling in; Stalin, and then his successor Khrushchev, were feared.  Thus months turned into years and years into decades, with no real pressure put on Russia to explain the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg.

When the Kremlin was finally forced to give an explanation, they produced a document stating Wallenberg died of cardiac arrest in prison in 1947 and his body was cremated.  Why, then, do Gulag survivors report brief encounters with a Swedish diplomat named Wallenberg--as late as the mid-1970s?  In fact, there is the very slimmest of possibilities he is still alive today, tucked away in some forlorn cell.  He would now be 97 years old.

The Kremlin knows what really happened to Raoul Wallenberg.  Or, at least they could find out; there are records somewhere.  At this point, the motive is not to place blame, but to bring home a hero, to lay him to rest properly.  Shouldn't his story be told?  Shouldn't his life be honored and his death memorialized?

Words from a Budapest monument to Wallenberg (stolen before it could be unveiled, and never replaced):  "This monument is our silent and eternal gratitude to him and should always remind us of his eternally lasting humanity in an inhuman period."

That is why I have joined the other estimated 20,000 who have sent messages to Vladimir Putin.  You can, too.

Learn more about Raoul Wallenberg here.

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