Seven decades after Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by Russsian authorities and disappeared into the depths of the Russian gulag, new clues have emerged about the fate of one of the most famous of the Righteous Gentiles, a Swedish noblemen who heroically defied the Nazi beasts and risked his own life to save as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews.
The new information emerged with publication of the memoirs of General Ivan Serov, who served as the head of the KGB in the mid- and late-1950s and died in 1990.
Four years ago, during renovations in Serov’s Moscow dacha, his diary was found hidden in the wall of a garage. Serov’s granddaughter recently published selected excerpts, which included several references to Wallenberg.
According to a report in The New York Times, Serov states that he had been instructed during the 1950s by then-Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was eager at the time to repair relations with Sweden, to find out what happened to Wallenberg.
Serov came to the conclusion that Wallenberg had been executed on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1947, and writes that he saw a so-called Certificate (“Akt”) of Cremation for Raoul Wallenberg’s remains, signed by two officials of Lubyanka Prison — Chief Warden Aleksandr Mironov and Lubyanka’s Commandant (chief executioner), Vasilii Blokhin — in 1947.
Serov also reportedly wrote that former State Security Minister Viktor Abakumov, who was arrested in July 1951 and who had been in charge of the Wallenberg case, was allegedly interrogated in 1953 or 1954 by Col. Aleksandr Kozyrev, then acting head of the MVD Department of Investigation of Especially Important Cases. In this interrogation, Abakumov presumably confirmed that Raoul Wallenberg, in fact, had been “liquidated” on direct orders from Stalin.
However, in a statement, Wallenberg’s niece, Marie Dupuy, says that “numerous questions remain about the source material, which must be thoroughly evaluated before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
“The original notes in Serov’s diary regarding Raoul Wallenberg were not reproduced. It appears that some parts of Gen. Serov’s recollections about the Wallenberg case were prompted by telephone calls to his home in 1987 (at the age of 82). It is currently unclear if in his final account of the Wallenberg case he relied on any original documents or earlier notes from his diary. It is also unclear if some of the details appeared during the editorial work on the notes before publication.
“Finally, his notes include a number of factual errors which cast some doubt on the reliability of at least part of his recollections,” she added.
Dupuy filed a request with the FSB Central Archives to present this documentation, which she says has not been made available during previous investigations of the Wallenberg case.
The revelation of Serov’s assertion was not a surprise to those who have researched Wallenberg’s fate. In 2000, Alexander Yakovlev, the head of a Russian presidential commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate, reached the same conclusion. But this is the first time that there is mention of official documents confirming that he had been killed by the Soviets.
A Dangerous Mission
The heroic and tragic saga of Wallenberg started during the darkest days of the Holocaust.
Two days before Erev Yom Kippur 5703/1943, in what would become known as the “Rabbis’ March,” more than four hundred Rabbanim marched on Washington, D.C. The demonstration was the brainchild of Hillel Kook, who used the pseudonym Peter Bergson, and was organized by Agudas Harabbanim and the Agudas Ha’admorim. The marchers came to plead for U.S. government action to save Jews from Hitler.
Many participants were bitterly disappointed by the fact that not only did President Roosevelt refuse to meet with them, but even the vice president, who spoke with them on the steps of the Senate building, did not invite them in. However, media coverage of the march, expressing outrage over the way the esteemed Rabbanim were treated, helped increase pressure on the Roosevelt administration to save some of the ever-dwindling number of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Rabbis’ March was a key facet in a media campaign carefully orchestrated by Bergson and his associates. Finally, following the intervention of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and an initiative by Congress to act on the matter, Roosevelt issued an executive order in January 1944 creating the War Refugee Board (WRB), an official U.S. government agency whose stated purpose was to rescue refugees from Hitler’s Europe.
In June 1944, Iver Olson, the WRB’s newly appointed representative in Sweden, met Kalman Lauer, the owner of an export-import firm. He told Lauer that the WRB was anxious to send someone to Budapest to see what could be done to save the remaining Jews of Hungary. The Nazis would never let in an American, so he was looking for someone from a neutral country like Sweden who would agree to undertake a very dangerous mission.
Lauer told Olson about one of his employees, 31-year-old Raoul Wallenberg, a member of the wealthiest family in Sweden. Lauer soon arranged for Olson to meet the aristocrat for dinner, and the three discussed the mission straight through the night. Olson was highly impressed by the intensity and enthusiasm exhibited by the young Swede and chose him for the task.
Olson’s plan called for Wallenberg to travel to Budapest as a Swedish diplomat, with the empowerment to issue Swedish passports in order to bring as many Jews as possible to Sweden.
Olson then proposed Wallenberg’s nomination to the Swedish government. They had agreed in principle to send an envoy to Budapest with diplomatic cover, and Wallenberg was quite acceptable. It was Wallenberg, however, who laid out a list of conditions, determined that his efforts not be stymied by bureaucracy and red tape.
The Swedes were shocked to hear his demands, which included a free hand to use any efforts he saw fit to fulfill his mission — including bribery and the power to deal directly with the prime minister or any other member of the Hungarian government. Perhaps most importantly, he insisted on being authorized to give asylum in buildings belonging to the Legation to persons holding Swedish protective passports.
His demands were so unusual that the matter made its way to the prime minister of Sweden, who in turn consulted the aging King Gustav V. In the end, the Swedish government agreed to all of Wallenberg’s conditions.
Wallenberg’s goal was clear: He was going to save as many Jews as possible. He would allow neither danger nor practical considerations to stand in his way.
Standing Up to Eichmann
“In the name of the Szalasi government, I demand those with Swedish passports to raise them high!”
The voice — though powerful and determined — betrayed no emotion. Hundreds of weakened, emaciated, Hungarian Jews turned around, wondering where the voice was coming from and what the man wanted. Under the constant watch of the Nazi fiends, they had marched 125 miles, through cold and rain, without any real food or shelter. Thousands of their brethren had passed away along the way — some from hunger, some from thirst, and others from sheer exhaustion.
Now they had reached the border crossing at Hegyeshalom, where they were being put on trains to be transported to death camps. Only moments earlier, Adolf Eichmann and his deputy Dieter Wisliceny had been counting them as one would count cattle: “Funf, sechs, sieben — five, six, seven…”
At the sudden demand for Swedish passports, Eichmann and Wisliceny spun around, staring in surprise at the determined young stranger in their midst.
“I am Wallenberg, Swedish Legation.” Wallenberg pointed to an astonished Jew waiting for his turn to be handed over to the executioner. “You, there,” he shouted, “give me your Swedish passport and get into that line. And you get behind him,” he firmly instructed a second Jew. “I know I gave you a passport.”
Wallenberg continued to move quickly, talking loudly, hoping that the Jews would catch on to his intentions.
The Jews started groping in their pockets for bits of identification. A driver’s license or birth certificate sufficed. Wallenberg was grabbing them so fast that the Nazis — who could not read Hungarian anyway — did not seem to be checking. Within minutes he had separated hundreds of Jews into his own convoy. International Red Cross trucks, summoned at his request, arrived, and the Jews climbed on.
Wisliceny resumed counting heads, and Wallenberg jumped into his car. He leaned out the window and whispered to the Jews he was leaving behind:
“I am sorry; I am trying to take the youngest ones first. I want to save a nation.”
The next day, desperate to save lives, he mounted a train that held Jews who had already been “counted” by Eichmann. “Get off this train,” he ordered. “I issued you a passport — your name is right here in my book!”
These Jews may never even have seen a Swedish passport before, let alone procured one, but this did not stop hundreds of them from jumping off the train into the waiting trucks. Once again, risking his own life, Raoul Wallenberg was the messenger from Hashem to snatch Jews from the jaws of death.
In the coming months, Wallenberg grew more and more desperate to save Jews from being sent to their deaths, and the circle of Jews furnished with “protective” passports constantly widened — far beyond the relatively limited group with some link to Sweden. The total number of Jews in houses under the protection of the Swedish Legation alone gradually rose to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people.
The Swiss Legation, led by Karl Lutz, soon began to emulate Wallenberg, issuing its own “Palestinian Passes.” Though these documents had no real validity since the British, and not the Swiss, held the mandate to Eretz Yisrael, the ruse helped save many Jewish lives.
One of Wallenberg’s most ingenious tactics was the concept of “safe houses.” He based his idea on the fact that embassies and consulates are considered “extraterritorial,” meaning that although they may legally stand in the heart of a country’s capital, local authorities have no jurisdiction on persons located within their walls.
Wallenberg purchased large properties in Budapest, which he designated part of the Swedish Legation. He hung up large blue and yellow Swedish flags in front of them and firmly insisted that these properties be considered extraterritorial. The Swiss and other neutral governments soon adopted the idea, and by the end of the war 30,000 Jews had found shelter in these safe houses, two-thirds under Swedish protection.
In the first week of January 1945, the Russians were already in control of much of Budapest, but this did not dissuade the Nazis from their plan to murder all the remaining Jews in the city.
Wallenberg sent a message to the local S.S. chief, General Schmidthuber, saying that if he won’t stop this pogrom, he will personally see to it that Schmidthuber is charged with murder and genocide by the war crimes tribunal.
Schmidthuber paced up and down the hall of his headquarters. Finally, his concern for his own fate won out over his hatred for the Jews.
“There will be no massacre; the pogrom is canceled,” he informed the German and Hungarian troops.
Wallenberg’s reputation had preceded his message, and Schmidthuber had no doubt that somehow the Swede had the capacity to carry out his threat. The ploy was successful. Raoul Wallenberg had saved another 70,000 Jews.
Liberation and Imprisonment
At long last, the Russians managed to drive the Nazis from Budapest. Wallenberg’s principal mission had concluded, but he was in no hurry to leave. He was gravely concerned about the 120,000 Jews who had survived. Together with his associates, he had drafted a plan to help them rebuild their lives and reclaim their properties.
For this, he needed the cooperation of the highest Russian authorities — and so, rather than avoiding the Russian forces, he asked to meet with Marshal Malinovsky, one of the commanders of the Russian Army, whose headquarters was in the city of Debrecen.
Wallenberg may have had an inkling of things to come when he commented to an acquaintance, “I’m going to Debrecen. But I’m not sure whether I’m going as their guest or their prisoner.”
After he bade farewell to his office staff, Wallenberg slipped on the ice in front of the hospital he had set up near his office. As he was being helped up, he saw two elderly Jews, yellow stars still stitched to their clothes, taking their first steps as free men.
“I’m glad to see,” he declared, “that my mission has not been completely in vain.”
Later that day, Russian officers handed Wallenberg over to the dreaded NKVD, the precursor to the KGB — the malevolent Russian secret police. He never made it to Debrecen. Instead he was taken to the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.
Wallenberg’s mother, now Mrs. Maj Von Dardel (she remarried after her husband’s untimely death), was growing increasingly concerned about her son. She pressured the Russian ambassador in Stockholm, Mme. Kollontai, for information. “Wallenberg is in Russian hands,” she was told. “He is safe and sound.”
Mrs. Von Dardel was not reassured, however, and continued to pressure the Swedish foreign office for information. The Swedish ambassador to Moscow, Staffan Soderblom, was reluctant to antagonize the Russians and preferred not to press the issue. A year and a half passed before Soderblom agreed to raise the issue with Josef Stalin.
The Russian dictator pretended that he had never heard the name Wallenberg, but promised to “look into it.” Then, in an unforgivable blunder, Soderblom offered his unsolicited opinion on the matter, suggesting to Stalin that Wallenberg may “have met with an accident in Budapest,” thus saving the Russians the trouble of concocting an original version of what had occurred.
It took them several months, but eventually the Russians issued a firm statement saying that Wallenberg was not anywhere in the Soviet Union and had probably been killed in Budapest.
In the Russian Gulag
The Swedes remained derelict in their duties toward their native hero, and Wallenberg was left to suffer in a Russian prison cell. After returning from an interrogation session, he once reportedly said to his cellmates, “I think I may have been forgotten by Sweden and the rest of the world. I wonder if any of the people I saved still remember?”
Twelve long years passed, Josef Stalin died, and a new era in Soviet politics began. A number of emigres from the Soviet Union began giving testimony that they had seen Wallenberg in prison. Eventually, the ever-increasing amount of data confirming that he was indeed somewhere in the USSR, compiled primarily by a Jew named Rudolf Philip, put pressure on the Soviets to change their story.
On February 6, 1957, they announced that Raoul Wallenberg had “apparently” been in a Russian prison but had died, “probably as a result of a heart attack” on July 17, 1947. The announcement was carefully worded to allow the Soviets to change their minds at a later date.
Raoul’s mother refused to accept the Soviet claim, insisting that her beloved son was still alive. Until her death in 1979 at the age of 87, Mrs. Von Dardel toiled relentlessly to rescue her son. She bombarded the Swedish foreign office with pleas and even turned to the Swedish king, the U.N., and anyone else she thought might have influence with the Russians. For the most part, the world ignored her cries. Raoul Wallenberg had rescued thousands, but there would be no one to rescue him.
A Continuing Mystery
In the ensuing five decades, the Russians would persist in their claim that Wallenberg died in 1947. In November 2000, Alexander Yakovlev, the head of a Russian presidential commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate, announced that he had indeed died in Lubyanka in 1947, but not from a heart attack; instead, Yakovlev said, he had been executed.
There is, however, a significant amount of eyewitness testimony indicating that Wallenberg was seen in various places in the Russian gulag as late as 1981. Though some of these reports have been discredited and others can be attributed to a case of mistaken identity or miscommunication, enough data remained to strain the credibility of the Russian position.
One example is the testimony of Varvara Larina, a hospital orderly at Vladimir Prison, who was interviewed in December 1993. She told of a prisoner kept in isolation who she guessed had been in Vladimir from the middle of the 1950s until sometime into the ’60s. When she was shown a number of photographs, she chose one of Raoul Wallenberg that had never been published and identified him immediately as the prisoner in question.
A Hungarian named Albert Hollosy stated in 1981 that he had spent some time that year in a KGB-controlled psychiatric clinic in Moscow, where a nurse had pointed out Raoul Wallenberg in a wheelchair.
This is not an unlikely scenario, since it was an accepted communist practice to lock up political prisoners in psychiatric hospitals under false names. A Latvian named Antonas Bogdanas claimed that he met Wallenberg in Norilsk in 1951. Both were being sent to a “special prison,” a psychiatric clinic, in Kazan, where Wallenberg was to be treated for “megalomania after claiming that he had been a Swedish diplomat.”
Word of Serov’s diary has prompted new calls for Russia to allow free and unfettered access to the KGB archives in order to try and locate the remains of Raoul Wallenberg and, if possible, bring them back home for proper burial.
In an open letter dated Tuesday to Russian Presidnet Vladimir Putin, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF), a global-reach NGO based in New York, pointed out that “Raoul’s parents and his step-father are buried in Sweden and his half-sister, Nina, is alive and deserves to be able to visit her half-brother’s grave.”
“Following such a humane gesture, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation would offer to erect and deploy a major monument in Moscow, as a symbol of peace, solidarity and reconciliation and as a token of gratitude to Russia,” the Foundation wrote.