Holocaust Hero’s Fate Remains in Dispute

February 28, 2009
The Wall Street Journal

Since Raoul Wallenberg disappeared into Soviet prisons in 1945, his fate has remained in dispute. The Kremlin has maintained for more than a half-century that the Swedish humanitarian died of a heart attack soon after his capture. But Moscow has yet to definitively document how or when he met his end.

“There is a sort of ambivalence and embarrassment” among Russian leaders regarding Mr. Wallenberg, says former United Nations chief Kofi Annan. Mr. Annan, the husband of Mr. Wallenberg’s niece, Nane, says he raised the matter of her missing relative to then-President Vladimir Putin. “You have to prod.”

In 1957, the Soviets furnished a report, dated 1947, that attested to Mr. Wallenberg’s heart attack. But many experts doubt its authenticity. In the years before it, the Soviets had alleged both that Mr. Wallenberg was not known to them and that he had been murdered by Nazis. In the years after it, witnesses alleged they had seen Mr. Wallenberg in various Soviet prisons and hospitals.

Some have also challenged the Soviet claim that most other documents tied to Mr. Wallenberg were purged. “The file of a foreign diplomat which could some day become crucial for the reputation of this country and its leadership could not possibly be destroyed,” the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov wrote in September 1989.

The opinion is shared by Susanne Berger, a former consultant to the Swedish-Russian joint governmental task force on Raoul Wallenberg, whose research on Mr. Wallenberg has been funded for 15 years by his half-brother, Guy von Dardel. Ms. Berger believes that among the extant documents the Russians have not disclosed are Mr. Wallenberg’s personal file from Moscow’s Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons, the records from the Politburo and Central Committee discussions of Mr. Wallenberg and the reports of KGB agent Mikhail Tolstoy-Kutuzov, who monitored Mr. Wallenberg before his arrest in Budapest.

“It is not possible for me to say whether or not there are more documents,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says.

In 2001, Moscow allowed that the Swede, likely arrested on suspicion of spying, had been innocent. More recently, Mr. Putin expressed a willingness to release more information when, on June 5, 2007, the president welcomed the chief rabbi of Russia to his private dacha.

“I said, ‘There’s this issue of Wallenberg,'” recalls Berl Lazar. “He said, ‘Yes, when I was in the KGB, this issue came up.'”

The rabbi suggested that full disclosure would benefit not only Mr. Wallenberg’s family and the Jewish community, but Russia, too. “He loved the idea,” says Rabbi Lazar.

Mr. Putin, presently Russia’s prime minister, at once telephoned Nikolai Patrushev, recalls the rabbi, telling the director of the FSB, the successor agency of the KGB: “I want you to find out all that happened and give it over to [the rabbi].”

In September, before television cameras at FSB headquarters, Mr. Patrushev presented to the rabbi 15 documents pertaining to Mr. Wallenberg. They contained no new information.

Stockholm, which in 2003 admitted to repeated failures in trying to free Mr. Wallenberg in the years after his arrest, says it has continued to raise Mr. Wallenberg to the Russians. In March, deputy foreign minister Frank Belfrage broached the case to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Titov.

“What they are saying now, the Russians, is that the Wallenberg case is a historical issue,” says Jan Nyberg, the deputy head for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the Swedish foreign ministry. “We continue to say it is on our bilateral agenda.”

Sweden has nonetheless stopped assigning an ambassador to preside over the case. It has cut its annual Raoul Wallenberg research grant nearly in half, to 450,000 krona, approximately $50,000.

Mr. Wallenberg’s half-sister Nina Lagergren, 87, says she would like to see her parents’ diary published. (The diary, which she donated to Sweden’s national archives in 1985, was made available to the public in 2000 but archive officials say it has gone all but unread.) Mr. von Dardel, 89, says he would like his half-brother awarded the Nobel Prize. Both would like an array of archives opened to them. Above all, they say, they want documented answers from Russia.

“Once Nina and Guy pass away,” says retired Swedish ambassador Jan Lundvik, “the matter will, to a large extent, be closed in Sweden.”