Wallenberg - A Major Test of Glasnost

GLASNOST has brought commendable openness to Soviet history. The Kremlin has owned up to the 1939 pact with Hitler partitioning Poland, and has admitted the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre of 15,000 Polish officers and other prisoners. But there is another crime it has to face. It didn't involve whole nations, but only one man, probably the noblest figure of the 20th century: Raoul Wallenberg.

The exploits of this selfless man are now well known. A 31-year-old architect and businessman, scion of a wealthy Swedish diplomatic and banking family, he traveled to Hungary in July 1944 as a special attach'e to the Swedish legation in Budapest. Hungary at the time was an ally of Nazi Germany and was home to the last surviving large Jewish community in Europe. Wallenberg, who had studied in the United States, had been encouraged to undertake his mission by a representative of the US War Refugee Board, which had been created by President Roosevelt, belatedly, in January 1944. The board financed much of Wallenberg's efforts.

When Wallenberg arrived in Hungary, the government of Admiral Horthy had just halted, under international pressure, the Nazi mass deportations (directed by Eichmann), which in two months had carted about 400,000 Jews off to the ovens at Auschwitz. Most of Budapest's 230,000 Jews remained in the capital. With a staff of about 300, mostly Jews, he set up safe houses under Swedish diplomatic protection and gave out Swedish passports by the thousand, saving at least 20,000 people.

In October, the Germans overthrew Horthy after he made armistice overtures to the Allies, installing the fascist Arrow Cross party in his place. Arrow Cross gangs were turned loose against the Jews, massacring 10,000 to 15,000. On Christmas Day 1944, 78 children in one of Wallenberg's shelters were machine-gunned and beaten to death. He forestalled other attacks, however, confronting armed thugs and intervening with authorities, threatening them with retribution after the war.

In November, with the collapse of the rail system, the Nazis forced about 40,000 Jews on a death march west toward Austria. Wallenberg drove along the columns, giving out food, medical, and other assistance, and succeeded in pulling out hundreds and returning them to refuge in Budapest. ``He ... showed us that one human being cared,'' said one survivor. As the Russian armies approached, the S.S. and Arrow Cross were planning to kill the 70,000 Jews remaining in the ghetto, but Wallenberg's threat of postwar retribution may have been crucial in averting this horror. Thus, this wealthy man who forsook the comfort of neutrality, saved, directly and indirectly, up to 100,000 people.

Eichmann and the Arrow Cross made Wallenberg a hunted man, but he eluded them. Then, in January 1945, he disappeared into Russian hands, never to be heard from again. The Soviet line, issued in 1957, and contradicting an earlier statement denying any knowledge, is that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in the KGB's Lubyanka prison in Moscow in 1947, age 35. Last October, after 44 years, they handed over to a Swedish delegation, which included surviving relatives, his passport, personal effects, and a card registering him as a prisoner in the Lubyanka dated Feb. 6, 1945. Maintaining the 1957 position, they also turned over the handwritten note by a long-deceased doctor attesting to Wallenberg's alleged death.

In the past two years Soviet authorities and journals have discussed the case and lauded Wallenberg's heroism, conceding his arrest was a ``a tragic mistake that has never been corrected.'' They attribute lack of further evidence to destruction of records by Stalinist authorities, and argue that millions of Russians also disappeared.

But the family and the many Wallenberg committees around the world reject this and believe he is alive, noting numerous reports of sightings through the years. The Soviets may fear the embarrassment of releasing Wallenberg, or revealing details of his fate (was he tortured?) and the reasons for his arrest (he may have been suspected as a US spy), and could be trying to appease Western opinion by placing the onus on their predecessors.

The Reagan and now the Bush administrations have recognized the US responsibility to pursue this case; Wallenberg's mission was sponsored by the US, and in 1981 he became the second foreigner (Churchill was the first) to be made an honorary citizen. Secretary of State Baker raised the matter with Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze last September. Treading a delicate diplomatic path, President Bush must raise it again with Mr. Gorbachev at the summit.

Raoul Wallenberg is our conscience. In mankind's blackest hour, when unsurpassed human depravity seemed to rule, and those who could have helped, including the US, did far too little, he was a beacon of goodness and light. When we see the vicious hatreds of those times rising again in Eastern Europe and Russia, as if the 6 million Jews had never perished, Wallenberg's example forever reminds us that humanity can be redeemed.

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