Unsolved Mystery: Whatever Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?


As a new congressman 25 years ago, the first legislation I introduced was a bill to pay a debt from my adolescence.

My wife, Annette, felt a similar obligation. We owed our lives to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who had saved us during the Holocaust. At that time, Wallenberg was thought by many to be alive in the Soviet gulag, but nobody was sure. His fate remains unknown to this day.

The international community, especially the U.S. government, must redouble efforts to establish the facts of what happened to Wallenberg. Additional pressure must be brought to bear on Russia to open all archives related to his case, even if it means exposing embarrassing secrets from the Soviet era or more recent secrets — and not just Russian ones.

Anyone who knows Wallenberg's story is aware that it is not just a few individuals, but all of humanity that owes him a debt. When so many others were less courageous or even complicit in the evil of their time, Wallenberg chose to risk his privileged life to help strangers.

Wallenberg went to Budapest in 1944 trying to preserve the remaining Jewish population. The Nazis had deported more than 400,000 Hungarian Jewish men, women and children to Auschwitz and other extermination camps; only some 230,000 Jews were left in the capital. Wallenberg set out to save them through courage, ingenuity, diligence and chutzpah.

One of his most clever actions was to produce documents "Schutzpaesse" — protective passports conferring Swedish citizenship on anyone who carried them.

Wallenberg spared tens of thousands from deportation and death marches while Nazi power was at its peak, and many more from an all-out massacre as the desperate Germans withdrew at the war's end. But Soviet military authorities arrested Wallenberg in January 1945 in violation of international law.

The scion of a prominent Swedish family, he had been sought out by the U.S. War Refugee Board in Stockholm for the risky task of rescuing Jews in German-occupied Hungary.

At age 32, Wallenberg was appointed a secretary in the Swedish legation, and his efforts were financed by the United States under the supervision of the U.S. secretary of state.

America, which had asked Raoul Wallenberg to risk everything during the Nazi death-grip on Hungary, could not in good conscience abandon him under Hungary's next occupiers.

At the time, members of the U.S. Congress had tried to press Wallenberg's case. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was urged to intervene, but he refused.

The State Department's official position appears to have remained unchanged for decades. In 1973 — 28 years after Wallenberg was taken into Soviet custody — his ailing mother wrote to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pleading with him to seek information about her son from the Kremlin. The State Department's European Bureau strongly supported her request, but for reasons that have never been adequately explained, Kissinger did not act.

Today we know next to nothing about the postwar years of perhaps one of the Holocaust era's greatest heroes. Indeed, with the release of a detailed Swedish Foreign Office study not long ago, then Prime Minister Goran Persson concluded "there is no evidence of what happened" to Wallenberg. The report noted that the Swedish government had failed to take opportunities, particularly in the late 1940s, to obtain Wallenberg's release.

The Kremlin may insist today that Wallenberg died in the Lubyanka prison in July 1947, but it has offered no real proof, no documentation and no evidence to validate that claim. As early as fall 1991, when Soviet-era records were being made public, Russia's top archivist bitterly and publicly complained that the KGB had deliberately classified various documents of the case as "operational intelligence" and, therewith, closed them to public scrutiny.

Many honors have been given — and will continue to be given — to preserve the memory of Wallenberg's achievements. A bust of him stands in the U.S. Capitol. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is located at 100 Wallenberg Place in Washington. And three years ago, he was made an honorary citizen of Budapest.

Such honors are helpful in educating the world about the man's selfless and courageous work, but that's not enough: The United States must pressure Russia to open all its Wallenberg archives so that the fate of this remarkable honorary citizen — who worked closely with this country in a time of international crisis but was evidently left stranded when he needed help most — can finally be known.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) is the founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.


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