The Last Word on Wallenberg? New Investigations, New Questions
by William Korey
Congressman Tom Lantos
My wife, Annette, and I owe our lives to Raoul Wallenberg.
On March 19, 1944, the Nazi Wehrmacht stormed into Hungary and occupied our native city, Budapest. We and other Jews had suffered abuse, humiliation, and financial loss under Hungary's anti-Semitic laws for some years before Nazi troops actually marched through the streets of Hungary. Annette's family's jewelry store had been seized before the occupation, and her father had become a chauffeur for the Hungarian thug who was given the store. Sometime between March and December 1944, her father was one of many Budapest Jews who were lined up along the banks of the Danube River, shot, and their bodies thrown into the river.
My uncle, who was a professor, lost his position at the university well before the occupation. He and my male cousins, who were a few years older than I, were forced to serve the Hungarian military which was then fighting with Germany against the Soviet Union on the eastern front. They were not soldiers; they were not trusted to carry arms. They were forced laborers, who carried baggage and dug trenches for the troops. Not one of my male relatives lived to return to Hungary.
Conditions were difficult before March 1944, but became much worse during the occupation. With the German military came the infamous Adolf Eichmann, who had orders to exterminate the Jewish population of Hungary. By the end of that summer, most of the Jews outside Budapest had been sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, which ultimately claimed nearly 600,000 of the 700,000 Jews living in Hungary before the war.
Shortly after the Germans' arrival, I was sent to a forced labor battalion north of Budapest, where I was part of a group of Jewish teenagers required to maintain a key bridge on the Budapest-Vienna rail line. I managed to escape from the camp, but was caught and nearly beaten to death. Fearing for my life and with nothing to lose, I attempted a second escape and this time I succeeded in reaching Budapest. My blond hair and blue eyes allowed me to blend in, but I lived in fear that my Jewish identity would be discovered if I were ordered by a Nazi soldier to drop my pants.
I made my way to the apartment where my aunt was living. My only relative to survive the war, she and hundreds of other desperate Jews were there crammed into a Wallenberg "safe house"-one of the apartment buildings that Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg had rented and placed under Swedish diplomatic protection at the request of the United States and with American financial assistance. As a teenager in occupied Budapest, I worked with the anti-Nazi underground, foraging for food, medicine, and supplies for those in the safe house.
In addition to providing limited protection for Jews who were able to get into these "safe houses," Wallenberg created and issued Schutzpasse (protective passports) to Jews. These documents specified that the holder of the Schutzpass was under the protection of the Royal Swedish Government and would emigrate to Sweden as soon as conditions permitted. Wallenberg passed these out to Jews in an effort to save them from extermination camps. Through his efforts, tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews were saved.
Annette, like me, lost most of her family in the Holocaust. She and her mother survived the nine months of Nazi occupation in a diplomatic residence on the outskirts of the city. In December 1944, at the height of the battle between Nazi and Soviet forces for control of the city, Annette, her mother, and a few others were able to reach Switzerland because of an agreement that Wallenberg had negotiated with German authorities.
Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops in January 1945, just a few days after the Red Army liberated Budapest from German occupation. He was never again seen outside prison. There were numerous reports of sightings of the Swede by other prisoners, but there have been few credible reports since about 1980. Despite repeated requests to Soviet officials for information and the establishment of a number of investigative commissions, the full story of Wallenberg's disappearance is still not known.
Raoul Wallenberg was a member of Sweden's most distinguished, powerful, and wealthy family. He had endless horizons and opportunities before him. But he voluntarily left the security, comfort, and affluence of peaceful Stockholm to go to the hell of Budapest. With courage that defies description, he placed his own frail, unarmed body between the Nazi war machine and its intended innocent victims.
Annette and I had two goals in our efforts concerning Wallenberg. First, we sought to win his freedom from Soviet imprisonment. We informed others in Congress and leaders in every administration about Wallenberg's plight, and we encouraged them to join us in pressing U.S. government officials to raise his case with Soviet and Russian leaders. Second, we sought to honor Wallenberg for his incredible humanitarian service and share his heroic legacy with the world. Although there is still no final and definitive information about Wallenberg's fate, recently there has been no lack of interest and certainly no lack of effort in trying to determine what happened to him. Unfortunately, we have been more successful in raising awareness of his compassionate service to his fellow men and honoring him than in saving his life.
Annette began her efforts to rescue Wallenberg in the early 1970s, almost a decade before I was elected to Congress. At that time, believing that Wallenberg had perished in the Gulag, she began speaking to high school students as a way of spreading the word about his heroic mission, and she organized others to do the same. In our family we considered this work to be our memorial to our family members who perished in the Holocaust.
On November 7, 1977, I read a small paragraph in the New York Times that quoted Simon Wiesenthal as saying that he had located Raoul Wallenberg alive in a Soviet mental hospital. From that time on, Annette devoted herself to the attempt to rescue Wallenberg from the Gulag. She tried to solicit the assistance and interest of Swedish authorities, public officials, newspapers and columnists, but they all had the same general response-the story of a man who had disappeared thirty years ago was not newsworthy; no one would be interested.
Annette's first breakthrough in her efforts to capture public attention for Wallenberg's cause came through the auspices of the American Jewish Committee. In 1979, after listening to her story and looking at the evidence she had collected, AJC offered to hold a press conference for her and Wallenberg's halfsister, Nina Lagergren, to enable them to tell Wallenberg's story to the world. The press conference resulted in an article in the New York Times, and from then on there was growing interest in Raoul Wallenberg. He was no longer a forgotten hero.
One of the first political efforts to encourage the U.S. government to raise the issue of Wallenberg with Soviet leaders came in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter held a national radio call-in program. Individuals selected to ask the president questions were chosen from postcards sent in advance. Annette, who had established the International Free Wallenberg Committee a few years earlier, decided that this opportunity to raise the Wallenberg case must be seized. She sent in a number of postcards with her name and telephone number, and, amazingly, she was one of a handful chosen to ask the president a question.
The questions were not screened in advance, but White House officials did call to let her know that her name had been selected and that she would be able to ask the president a question on national radio. The question she asked, of course, was whether the president would raise the issue of Raoul Wallenberg with Soviet leaders. Jimmy Carter promised that he would, and he later confirmed that he had done so.
For most of the millions of Americans who heard Annette's question, Raoul Wallenberg was totally unknown. Because of the publicity her question generated, however, the news media suddenly began to take an interest in the Swedish humanitarian. Annette was invited to appear on CBS's program 60 Minutes, where she was interviewed by Dan Rather. The program's twenty-minute segment on Wallenberg was the first national news media attention given to the issue.
In 1980, my election to Congress to represent a district in California gave us a new opportunity to seek the release of Raoul Wallenberg and to call attention to his humanitarian service. When I arrived in Washington, the first piece of legislation that I introduced in the House of Representatives was a bill to make Raoul Wallenberg an honorary citizen of the United States-the second individual after Sir Winston Churchill to be so honored. After a tough uphill battle that took nine months, the Congress adopted my legislation. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation at a moving ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. We were joined on that occasion by Wallenberg's halfsister and halfbrother, Nina Lagergren and Guy von Dardel.
Our purpose in granting Wallenberg honorary citizenship was to give him the same kind of help that he had given to so many Hungarian Jews-to use an extension of citizenship in an effort to save lives. By making him an honorary citizen, the U.S. government had greater legitimacy and justification for raising his case with Soviet officials.
The congressional hearings that were held in connection with the citizenship legislation and the publicity that we were able to focus on Wallenberg did a great deal to raise his profile internationally and with the U.S. and other governments. During the Reagan administration, the Wallenberg case was discussed with Soviet officials on numerous occasions. I discussed the matter with Secretary of State George Shultz and other State Department and White House officials. As a member of Congress and head of numerous delegations that visited the Soviet Union during the 1980s, I personally raised the Wallenberg case many times. The citizenship legislation also called for periodic congressional hearings to report on efforts to secure the release of Wallenberg. As a member of the House International Relations Committee, I participated in all those hearings.
Once the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in 1989, we redoubled our efforts to gain information and to secure Wallenberg's release. By this time, however, credible reports of sightings of Wallenberg within the Soviet prison system had virtually ceased, but we did not give up hope that he might still be found alive. During the Mikhail Gorbachev era, we continued to press the Soviet government for information, hoping that glasnost would increase our access to information about Wallenberg's fate. I raised the issue with high-level Soviet officials, as did a number of senior officials in the first Bush administration, but none of us were successful in breaking through the Soviet wall of silence.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to an opening of information sources that had previously been closed to us. Former Soviet officials-some to raise money and some to cleanse their consciences-provided new information about Wallenberg. Documentary evidence, however, was extremely limited, and most of the new material raised more questions than it answered. Following the establishment of the Russian Federation, I continued to press the Wallenberg case with President Boris Yeltsin and the new government officials. President Clinton and senior U.S. government officials also raised the case.
As a result of these efforts, various investigations and joint commissions have been established in the hope of providing new information on Wallenberg. Some of these efforts are insightfully summarized and analyzed in this excellent volume by Bill Korey. The reports from the Swedish and Russian working groups and the independent consultants Susan Ellen Mesinai, Susanne Berger, and Marvin W. Makinen with Ari D. Kaplan are extremely important in furthering our knowledge of the Wallenberg case. Unfortunately, in spite of the greater openness in Russia over the past decade and the work of dedicated investigators, the Wallenberg mystery is still not solved.
The second goal Annette and I had, to honor Wallenberg and to make his compassionate deeds known, has been more successful. The honorary citizenship legislation that the Congress adopted, in addition to providing us with legal grounds for raising this case with Soviet officials, generated news stories that made a major contribution to increasing public knowledge about Wallenberg. It is no accident that within a couple of years of the signing of the citizenship legislation, a television miniseries was broadcast, with Richard Chamberlain playing the role of Wallenberg.
Other actions to raise his profile and to honor his work followed. One significant step was legislation that Congressman Bill Lowery of California and I introduced in 1985 to change the name of the section of 15th Street, S.W., between Independence Avenue and Maine Avenue in Washington, D.C., to Raoul Wallenberg Place. This is the street on which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is located, and so it is particularly meaningful that the address of this important national institution is 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W. This renaming took place when the location for the Holocaust Museum had already been determined, but before the building was completed. Coincidentally and significantly, the ceremony to lay the cornerstone for the museum took place on October 5, 1988-the seventh anniversary of the Rose Garden ceremony when the Raoul Wallenberg honorary citizenship legislation was signed.
Shortly after the name change was adopted, a brass plaque was placed to mark the renaming of the street. The text of the plaque, now located on the corner of the Holocaust Museum building, reads:
Raoul Wallenberg's mission of mercy on behalf of the United States during World War II is unprecedented in the history of mankind. He is responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives during the Holocaust. A shining light in a dark and depraved world, he proved that one person who has the courage to care can make a difference.
Another important honor for Wallenberg was the adoption by Congress of legislation to place a bust of the Swedish humanitarian on permanent display in the U.S. Capitol. An outstanding bronze bust by Israeli artist Miri Margolin, the aunt of former Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, was placed on the first floor of the Capitol. The bust was a gift to the Congress and the American people by Lillian Hoffman, a Colorado philanthropist.
One more important tribute to Wallenberg was the issuance of an American stamp by the U.S. Postal Service on April 24, 1997. The stamp features a profile portrait of Wallenberg on the telephone. In the background, a group of Holocaust survivors look over his shoulder. A Schutzpass, the protective passport document that he issued, is shown in the upper left corner. This commemorative stamp will help us remember this beacon of hope that shined in history's darkest moment.
My wife and I welcome Bill Korey's outstanding book, which provides an excellent summary and analysis of the most recent information we have concerning the life and tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg. We commend Bill for his scholarship and his fine presentation. We also commend the American Jewish Committee for its commitment to human rights and the fight against discrimination and racism. The decision of the AJC to publish this book is only the most recent example of a long and welcome tradition of commitment to fighting injustice and one that helps to keep the heroic spirit of Raoul Wallenberg alive.
U.S. Representative from California
House International Relations Committee
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