The Disappearance

The Disappearance

by William Korey


On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg started out on a journey that was supposed to last no more than eight days. For a short distance within Budapest a close colleague, Dr. Ernö Petö, rode with him. Wallenberg, pointing to his Soviet escort, told Petö: "I don’t know if they’re protecting me or watching me. I’m not sure if I’m their guest or prisoner."20 The observation proved prophetic. Petö soon took his leave, and later recalled wishing Wallenberg "all the best on his adventurous trip." It would turn out to be the last that anyone would see of Wallenberg as a free man.

What happened next is not clear. On the very day Wallenberg disappeared into Soviet hands, January 17, 1945, the Soviet Ministry of Defense issued a secret order for his arrest.21 It was signed by one of the Kremlin’s highest officials, Nikolai Bulganin, the deputy minister of defense and a member of Stalin’s war cabinet. A decade later Bulganin would become Nikita Khrushchev’s principal associate in ruling the USSR, first as minister of defense and later as prime minister. His signature on the arrest order meant that it had the approval of the top party and state leadership. Significantly, the document and its information were kept totally confidential. No one was to learn of it—and this meant all Western governments—until 1991, forty-five years later. Equally significant is that the order, as disclosed in the 1991 archival document of the Ministry of Defense, simply indicated that the military command in Budapest was directed to arrest Wallenberg and transport him to Moscow by any necessary means. It said nothing about the reason for the arrest.

Precisely when the formal seizure of Wallenberg and his driver took place is not known. An archival document, unearthed in October 1989, stipulated that the Swedish diplomat was arrested on January 19, two days after he had left Budapest.22 The arresting agency was military counterintelligence, SMERSH, the acronym for "Death to Spies," headed by Viktor Abakumov, who would shortly become minister of state security, in charge of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB.

Certainly, Wallenberg never reached Debrecen or any point nearby. According to biographer Kati Marton, Wallenberg and his driver were driven under Soviet military escort to Budapest’s Eastern Railroad Station. A long train trip across the Romanian countryside followed.23 After stopping at a Russian-Romanian border town for a while, the train resumed its journey to Moscow, arriving there on an afternoon. Here, strangely enough, the two "captives" were taken to view one of the city’s prized tourist spots—the Moscow subway.

They were soon brought to the notorious Lubyanka prison, though there are puzzling time gaps in the recorded trip from Budapest to the prison. As specified in an archival document—a registration file—made available in October 1989, Wallenberg was given a special card identifying him as a prisoner of war who had come from Budapest to Moscow on February 6, 1945, under the protection of SMERSH.24 The identification of Wallenberg as a prisoner of war implies that he was considered an agent or soldier of some country with whom the USSR was at war at the time. Sweden, of course, was neutral. Could a diplomat from a neutral country be taken as a "war prisoner"? As for the United States, it was an ally of the Soviet Union. Was Wallenberg perceived as an agent of Nazi Germany?

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Date: 1/4/1990
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