On a hot July afternoon in 1944, a balding Swede in the import-export business arrived in Nazi-occupied Budapest, carrying a rucksack, sleeping bag, and revolver. He told a friend he carried the revolver because he was scared. The man's name was Raoul Wallenberg. He was a shy, soft-spoken, 32-year-old scion of a banking family said to have more money than the entire Swedish government. In some circles he was called "the rich kid." Others said he was a "nice but frail boy."
The name Raoul Wallenberg has yet to become a household word. But a growing number of Americans believe that because of the six months he spent in Budapest, this "nice but frail boy" was the greatest hero of World War II. Albert Einstein is among those who championed the young Swede. Shortly after the war, he nominated Wallenberg for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wallenberg is credited with having saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis' extermination efforts. He worked under the aegis of the Swedish Legation in Budapest, and for his tough negotiating with the Nazis, his wholesale distribution of Swedish "protective passports," for personally pulling Jews out of the "death marches" and cattle cars en route to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Wallenberg became known as the "hero of the Holocaust."
The Swedish hero is also a lost hero. Arrested by the Russians at the end of the war, he disappeared into the Soviet gulag. And while today the Soviet Union maintains he died in a Moscow prison in 1947, reports over the last three decades from former Soviet prisoners say Wallenberg is still alive.
The mystery has spawned Free Wallenberg Committees throughout Europe and the United States. Last summer, President Carter and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance raised the Wallenberg case with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Mr. Carter reported last October:
"The Soviets maintain their claim that Mr. Wallenberg is no longer alive, but we are not forgetting about this case and will continue our efforts."
Heading the Free Wallenberg campaign out of her home in Hillsborough, Calif., is Annette Lantos. At age 13, she and her mother escaped from Hungary with Portuguese protective passports, for which they believe Wallenberg was indirectly responsible. Mrs. Lantos's husband, Tom, now an economics professor at San Francisco State University and the leading candidate for a California congressional seat, is also a Hungarian Jew who worked on Wallenberg's staff organizing the rescue missions when he was 16.
"Neither I, my husband, nor our children would be here today if it were not for Raoul Wallenberg," says Annette Lantos at a gathering of Wallenberg supporters in Woodside, Calif. "During that whole dark period, no one else directly confronted the cruelty of the Germans. No one else had the audacity to follow the death marches, to jump in front of guns leveled at Jews, to pull people off the deportation trains. Raoul Wallenberg not only saved 100,000 lives, he saved our faith in humanity."
As the search for Wallenberg continues, John Berenyi, a New York investment banker whose mother, aunt, and cousin were saved by Swedish passports, is producing a commercial movie about Wallenberg. Both Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro have expressed an interest in playing the part of Wallenberg, says Berenyi, who guarantees that the film, scheduled for release in 1981, will "not portray Wallenberg as the James Bond type." A portion of the film's profits will go to the Wallenberg Foundation in Stockholm and perhaps, also, to establish an academic chair at the University of Michigan, where the Swede earned an undergraduate degree in architecture.
"This guy belongs as the opening chapter of 'Profiles in Courage,'" says Berenyi. "The United States honors the generals, the Pattons, with stars on their shoulders. But it has forgotten the greatest hero of World War II, Wallenberg, who put his humanity on the line and went up against the Nazi machine." He adds, "The movie won't be a documentary, but it will be true to the facts."
Berenyi needn't worry about Hollywoodizing Wallenberg's life. The facts themselves read like a first-rate thriller.
By 1944, an Allied victory in Europe seemed imminent. The Nazis had already murdered 5 million Jews; the only remaining large Jewish population in Europe was in Hungary, which had a pro-Nazi government and consequently had not been occupied by the Germans. Hitler, however, angered by Hungary's failure to "solve the Jewish question" and to resist the Russians adequately on the Eastern front, sent in troops on March 19, 1944. Adolf Eichmann was assigned to exterminate Hungary's 800,000 Jews.
Eichmann worked with grisly efficiency. He deported 12,000 Jews daily in sealed cattle cars to Auschwitz and Birkenau. From May to July of that year, 437,000 Jews from rural Hungary were transported to the extermination camps. In the fall of 1944, when train routes were bombed by the Western Allies, Eichmann ordered "death marches" to the Austrian border, 120 miles from Budapest. Hundreds perished and were left in roadside ditches. Survivors were herded into concentration camps. In Budapest, thousands more were concentration camps. In Budapest, thousands more were dragged from their homes and shot by roaming gangs from the anti-Semitic Hungarian Arrow Cross Party.
By the summer of 1944, the US could no longer ignore the horror in Hungary. The Roosevelt administration, through the American War Refugee Board, called upon neutral Sweden to send a representative to Budapest to rescue as many Jews as possible. Raoul Wallenberg, a young businessman, was selected. His credentials were impeccable: Not only did he come from a banking dynasty known as "the Rockefellers of Sweden," but he was also doing business in Budapest at the time and had a Hungarian Jew as his partner.
Though Wallenberg had no previous diplomatic training, he was already somewhat of a world citizen. He spoke accent-free German, was educated in the US. He had traveled to Mexico and South Africa, and worked in the 1930s for a Dutch bank in Haifa, Israel, where he had repeated encounters with Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich's persecution.
Before his journey to Budapest, Wallenberg had dabbled in architecture and banking. He once unsuccessfully tried to market in Sweden a new line of zippers and a device for recorking bottles. "He was a frustrated businessman who probably would have been happier as an artist," says Guy von Dardel, Wallenberg's half-brother, who is a prominent nuclear physicist now working in California at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He recalls his older brother as "kind and good-humored. He was a good organizer, avid hiker, and had a lot of unspent energy."
Shortly after Wallenberg's arrival in Hungary on July 9, 1944, he began issuing documents called "Swedish protective passports." They bore the Swedish coat of arms and placed the holder under the protection of the Swedish government, but by international law carried no legal authority. Nevertheless, neutral Sweden had diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany and Wallenberg ingeniously parlayed that tie into recognition from the Hungarian government for the initial printing of 5,000 of these Swedish passports.
With money from the American War Refugee Board, he sheltered the passport holders in 32 houses he bought or rented. These "safe houses" flew the Swedish flag and were stocked by Wallenberg with food and medicine. (In some cases he outfitted young Jews in Nazi storm trooper uniforms and posted them outside the houses as a protection against roving Arrow Cross vigilantes.) The neutral Swiss and Portuguese embassies quickly followed suit, issuing protective passports and establishing their own "safe houses."
Wallenberg masterfully used the legitimacy of the 5,000 passports as a cover for most of his other rescue tactics. Between July and January, the Swedish government printed an additional 15,000 passports, which Wallenberg would often personally distribute to Jews on cattle cars about to leave for Auschwitz.
Per Anger worked with Wallenberg at the Swedish Legation. He was laster appointed Sweden's ambassador to Canada and has since written a book on Wallenberg. Ambassador Anger recalls:
"When he heard of a deportation, Raoul would rush to the railway station and call to the German commandant in a loud voice: "There is a mistake here! You have people under the protection of the Swedish government and we want them back!' The Germans were not very happy with Raoul, but they respected the embassy and would always open the cattle car doors for him. Raoul would then announce: 'Those with Swedish passports, come out.' Perhaps only a few actually had passports, but Raoul Wallenberg would say to people standing nearby: 'You over there, you have a passport. I
"Then they would show their driver's license or some receipts or anything in the Hungarian language which the Germans didn't understand. Raoul would say, 'Come with me,' and march off to the Swedish houses with 100 to 150 people."
One of Wallenberg's personal drivers on those rescue missions was a Hungarian Jew who is now working as a chemist in Los Altos Hills, Calif. He came to the US in 1946, and had not spoken since then about his experience. He asked not to be identified.
"I had just graduated from university for the second time," he recalls. "University students were exempted from the draft and we were all doing anything to save our skins, to survive. When the Germans invaded, they closed down the university. That's when I joined the Swedish effort.
"I drove Raoul to many of the deportation points. He always overwhelmed the German SS with double talk. Wallenberg would threaten to call their superiors if they didn't cooperate. Wallenberg used every possible subterfuge, including bribery and telling the SS he would put in a good word for them after Germany lost the war.
"Raoul usually carried a book listing names of passport holders. Sometimes it was all blank pages, and when he got to the train he would make up 20 Jewish names and begin calling them out. Usually three or four had passports, but for those who didn't, I stood behind Raoul with another 50 unfilled passports. You know how long it took me to write in their names? About 10 seconds. We handed them out and said, 'Oh, I'm sorry you couldn't get to the embassy to pick it up. Here it is, we brought it to you.' They would show it to the SS and be on their ways."
Wallenberg's driver carried forged identity papers for every occasion. One set showed he worked for the Swedish Embassy. Another showed he was a doctor for the German SS.
"Had they ever body-searched me and found several sets of false papers, I would have been shot on the spot. The risks we took you wouldn't believe. We were devoted disciples of Raoul Wallenberg."
The former driver was able to save his own parents with Swedish passports. His uncles and cousins died in Auschwitz. As he spoke of the Holocaust, his voice was surprisingly dispassionate. An intelligent man with penetrating eyes, he confesses: "I have never told anyone about this. It would be impossible for me to re-create the horror of that time, not even if we were to talk all day."
By January 1945, nearly 20,000 Hungarian Jews had been saved by Wallenberg and the protective passports. Per Anger estimates another 30,000 were saved by the "safe houses" and collaborative efforts of the other neutral embassies.
In the final days of the war, as the Russians were invading the outskirts of Budapest, German and Arrow Cross troops desperately plotted to liquidate, by firebombing, the city's central Jewish ghetto on the Pest side of the Danube. Wallenberg caught wind of the plans -- through a network of Jewish volunteers that numbered as many as 400 -- and sent a message in so many words to the German general in charge: "If you don't put a stop to this massacre, I will have you hanged as a war criminal when the war is over."
The action was halted, saving the lives of an estimated 70,000 Jews. In all, the Swedish diplomat is said to have saved, directly or indirectly, about half of Budapest's 200,000 Jews.
One of the more impressive aspects of the Wallenberg case is that he relinquished a privileged position of wealth and comfort in Stockholm to risk his life in a foreign country, and that he commanded such moral authority in playing the "end-of-the-war game" with the Nazis. His driver offers this partial explanation:
"He was a modest, unassuming boy with an iron will. He didn't particularly have a lot of guts. He wasn't the Patton type. Wallenberg was skilled in administrative detail and understood the German mentality. They responded to formal documents and authority. He was workmanlike, precise, often cold. We never got very close. He never shared chitchat or confidence. It was strictly business. Wallenberg went to fulfill a mission, but not for reasons of capturing headlines."
Wallenberg remained a loner to the end. When the Russians began storming central Budapest, Ambassador Anger tried to convince him to return to the safer Buda side and go underground with other neutral embassy personnel. Wallenberg refused the offer and returned to Pest in hopes of saving a few more lives.
"I saw him the last night in the air raid shelter in the Hungarian National Bank," says his driver. "I returned to the embassy in Buda. The next day Wallenberg went into the Russian lines and that was the last we heard."
On Jan. 19, 1945, Wallenberg was taken into Soviet "protective custody" and escorted to Debrecen, where the Russians and provisional Hungarian government were headquartered. Presumably, the Russians suspected him of espionage.
Says Mr. Anger: "The Soviets said to themselves, 'Why would a Swedish diplomat stay on the battlefield just to help Jewish people?" When they discovered he had American money on him [by some accounts as much as $20,000], to them it was clear he was an American spy." Some also speculate the Soviets felt threatened by Wallenberg's plan to restore Jewish property and feared he was scheming to keep postwar Hungary neutral like Sweden.
A month after Wallenberg's arrest, the Soviet Embassy in Stockholm informed Raoul's mother that her son was safe in Russia. At that time, the Swedish government cautioned Wallenberg's parents to remain silent for fear a public confrontation with the Russians might jeopardize his safety. Two years later, the Russians announced that Wallenberg "was not known in the Soviet Union," and said they suspected he had died in 1945 during fighting in Budapest.
After a series of Swedish inquiries, the Soviets retracted their 1947 statement. On Feb. 6, 1957, then-Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko announced that a search of the Lubyanka Prison archives had turned up a handwritten report dated July 17, 1947, which said that "the prisoner Walenberg [sic] . . . died suddenly in his cell last night. . . ."
Gromyko's announcement came shortly after former Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin in 1957 and included the footnote that the Soviet minister responsible for Wallenberg's imprisonment had been a friend of Stalin, and had been sentenced to death and shot.
This "handwritten report," however, has been contradicted by more than a dozen alleged sightings of Wallenberg since 1947. While attending a medical conference in Moscow in January 1961, Nanna Svartz, a Swedish professor and family friend of the Wallenbergs, mentioned the case to a Russian colleague, Prof. A. L. Myasnikov. He replied he was familiar with the case and that the Swede was "in a bad state" in a Soviet mental institution. When the Swedish government inquired further, Myasnikov retracted his previous statement, saying Svartz must have misunderstood him.
In 1978, a former Polish citizen, Abraham Kalinski, who now lives in Israel, reported he had seen Wallenberg in a prison yard in Vladimir. Two years ago, Jan Kaplan, a Russian Jew, in a phone conversation with his daughter in Israel, told of a 1975 meeting in Butyrka Prison with a Swede who had been in prison for 30 years. Later, Kaplan attempted to smuggle out a letter detailing his encounter with the Swede. The day after he sent the letter, he was rearrested by the KGB and returned to prison. The Soviets then curtly told Sweden: "There is no, nor can there be any, new information regarding the fate of Raoul Wallenberg."
Until recently, the Swedish government had made only halfhearted attempts to get to the bottom of Wallenberg's disappearance. Sweden's postwar socialist government was afraid of stepping on Moscow's toes, and repeatedly passed over opportunities to raise the issue or exchange prisoners. Sweden turned down several offers of assistance in the case from the US.
"The Wallenbergs were the Rockefellers of Sweden, and why should a socialist government want to help them?" reasons Berenyi. "Now, with a conservative government in power, things may change."
Evidence of such a change came last fall when Sweden offered to swap for Wallenberg a Swedish national caught spying for the Russians.The Soviet Union was not interested.
Because of Sweden's silent diplomacy and longtime refusal to "drive tandem with the Americans" (as the Swedish ambassador to Moscow put it in 1949), little progress was made until two years ago. In November 1977, Tom Lantos showed his wife, Annette, an item in the back pages of the New York Times reporting that Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal had interrogated a former Russian KGB agent who said Wallenberg was alive and being held in a Siberian hospital.
"We knew we had to do something, but couldn't expect to bring proceedings against the Russian empire from our little house in Hillsborough," Mrs. Lantos says. 1978, they went to Washington. Support gathered slowly, and by July 1979 , Sens. Frank Church, Claiborne Pell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Rudy Boschwitz announced they would co-chair the Free Wallenberg Committee (c/o PO Box 611, Burlingame, CA 94010) in the US.
"There is too much evidence to accept the pat Soviet statement that he died in 1947. It appears the Soviets want to sweep the Wallenberg case under the rug ," the senators' joint statement said.
The present strategy is to keep alive the Wallenberg case until a thaw in Soviet-American relations and, perhaps, the opportunity to extract concessions from Moscow. People like Guy von Dardel believe the high-ranking Soviet officials who deny knowledge of his brother are "honestly misinformed" by lower-level bureaucrats who have conspired to cover up the case. Von Dardel adds: "We've been very careful never to get mixed up with professional anti-Soviet organizations. We always make it clear we are not trying to hurt the Soviets. We just want Raoul back."