Oct. 28, 2009
JOSHUA PRAGER , THE JERUSALEM POST
The Swedish physicist Guy von Dardel was buried last month at age
90 without having realized the great quest of his life: freeing
Raoul Wallenberg, his older half-brother who safeguarded some 20,000
Jews from the Nazis before disappearing into Soviet captivity in
Von Dardel, like myriad private and governmental committees,
failed even to pry loose from Moscow definitive proof of what befell
Wallenberg. (The Kremlin has maintained since 1957 that he died of a
heart attack in 1947.) But he never stopped searching for his big
brother, scavenging Moscow on trips that left him with scabies,
hypothermia and few answers.
I recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal
about the horrible and hidden toll that Wallenberg's disappearance
took on his closest kin - half-brother Guy, half-sister Nina, mother
Maj and stepfather Fredrik. Wallenberg's parents - exhausted,
heartbroken and disillusioned - committed suicide two days apart in
Today, Nina continues to spread word of her half-brother,
focusing less on his whereabouts through the six decades that
followed his arrest than on his heroism in the six months before it.
Following are what she and four other surviving people who knew
Wallenberg told me about him.
Nina Lagergren, 88; Djursholm, Sweden
Lagergren was born almost nine years after Raoul to his mother
stepfather. (Wallenberg's father, the scion of a banking
dynasty in Sweden, had died before his son was born.)
"You can imagine," says Lagergren, "a little girl having an older
brother - good-looking, witty, speaking languages. Perfect!"
The younger sister was 15 years old when, in 1936, Wallenberg
returned to Sweden after five years abroad at school and at work. He
was a gust of fun.
"I remember vividly," says Lagergren, "at a Christmas party in
the country, he mimicked different nationalities" - an American
businessman, a German officer, French and British diplomats - each
in their own language. "Everybody laughed."
Wallenberg, says Lagergren, was also ambitious and empathic.
When, during wartime, they watched on Sveavägen Street the film
Pimpernel Smith, the fictional tale of a professor rescuing
refugees from the Gestapo, Wallenberg told her, "That is what I want
Wallenberg instead turned to business, trying in vain to sell a
better zipper and bottle cap, then trading foodstuffs through
Europe. He lamented his lot to his sister in February 1944 after she
moved to Berlin, where her husband worked for the Swedish embassy.
"It is frightfully boring here without you," he wrote her. "The
dinner table at home is straight out of a play by [August]
Months later, Wallenberg got his opportunity to rescue refugees.
And on July 6, wearing a homburg, a trench coat and a Browning
revolver, he flew to his sister en route to Hungary.
"We came and fetched him at the airport," recalls Lagergren. The
trio retired to their terrace overlooking Wannsee Lake in the
village of Caputh, where Wallenberg spoke excitedly of his mission.
Adds Lagergren, "It was a beautiful July night."
An air raid siren woke the siblings before dawn, and hours later,
Wallenberg, 31, boarded a train bound for Hungary.
Rolf af Klintberg, 97; Alby, Sweden
Af Klintberg and Wallenberg were classmates in Stockholm from age
10 to 18.
"He was one of my best, best friends," says af Klintberg, adding,
"I was more popular. He was more special. The other boys admired
Wallenberg, he says, was smart, artistic, funny, skilled at
debate, and confident.
"He was never arrogant, but he was sure that he would be more
successful than other people," he recalls. Wallenberg particularly
aspired to the clout of his paternal uncles: "His ambition was to be
one of the big Wallenbergs."
The friends, firstborn sons, sang in choir together, did homework
together, were drafted together, took walks together in their
matching black school caps. And as they grew older and war came to
Europe, it was politics that they discussed most. Af Klintberg says
he was mainly interested in domestic affairs, Wallenberg in the
world outside Sweden.
"He told me that it was necessary to go against Nazism," says af
Klintberg. "I was more neutral. He had been in America and he
thought like America in these things."
Af Klintberg never told his close friend that he was Jewish. But,
"I'm sure that he knew it."
Caroline Grinda-Christensen, 84; Stockholm
Grinda-Christensen was a rising dancer and singer, often
performing during World War II for the Swedish military, when
Wallenberg heard her sing in 1942. He phoned her and they went to a
She was 17 and beautiful; he was 30 and balding and unsure of a
profession. But, she says, he was "chivalrous" and possessed a sense
of humor that "made me more or less fall in love with him." When she
wrote him that she had gained a kilo, he wrote back that he hoped
the kilo was in the proper place.
Over some 15 dates, she says, the couple shared food and wine and
"He wanted to be an ambassador," says Grinda-Christensen. "That
was his private wish."
She adds, "I think he looked at himself as the hero… He wanted to
make a name. He wanted to be famous."
He also wanted, she says, "a beautiful wife." And one night at
Hasselbacken restaurant, Wallenberg asked her to enroll in a school
run by nuns.
"An ambassador couldn't have someone from the theater," she
explains. He then sketched for her, on a tablecloth she still has,
the home that would someday be theirs.
Says Grinda-Christensen, "He gave it to me and said, 'Save this
until I come back.'"
János Beér, 86; Winchester, Massachusetts
In November 1944, Beér, a university economics student in
Budapest, bumped into his friend Thomas Veres, who invited him to
the nearby Swedish legation where he worked for Wallenberg as a
photographer. Beér went. He did not tell Wallenberg that he was
Jewish (though he believes Wallenberg knew, despite his forged
identity papers). Wallenberg put him to work in his "Schutzling
Protokoll," an elite group he had created to rescue abducted Jews
and to transfer Jews from the general ghetto in Budapest to the
"This sounds very romantic," says Beér, "but with Wallenberg in
the background, we felt very safe… If we were not back, it was sure
Wallenberg would be there for us. We looked at him as a half-god."
The two men spoke, in German, roughly every other day for six
weeks. Wallenberg, says Beér, was optimistic, calm, respectful,
reassuring and full of humor.
On November 28, Beér, Wallenberg, his photographer and driver
arrived in his Studebaker at the Józsefváros railway station where
the Nazis had packed Jews into a cattle car for deportation.
Wallenberg and Beér spent hours negotiating the release of those
Jews who held "Schutzpasse" - the passport-like credentials
Wallenberg had created to claim the Jews under Swedish jurisdiction.
Says Beér, "Several hundred people were taken out of the railway
The men had returned to their car when Wallenberg saw a man on
the train waving a piece of paper. He asked Beér to see if it was
one of his passports. Beér approached the train.
"The gendarme said, 'Get away or I shoot you,'" he recalls. Beér
in the car, off to the safe house where Wallenberg saw
to it the rescued Jews were fed soup.
"Wallenberg had not eaten all day," adds Beér. "Tommy Veres sat
on his sandwiches."
Margaretha Hamacher Merz, 85; Salisbury, England
Merz met Wallenberg in 1943 at a restaurant through her friend
and his cousin Jan Bönde. The two became friends, sharing light
conversations over monthly dinners.
"We didn't talk politics," says Merz.
The next summer, she says, "suddenly he said, 'I must go to
There is no record that Wallenberg phoned anyone with any
regularity from Hungary - not the Swedish or US foreign departments
or even his parents. (Wallenberg spoke to his family just once from
Budapest, when his sister's husband Gunnar phoned him with the news
that he was an uncle.) But there was one person Wallenberg rang
every third day.
"Budapest calling," the operator would say, recalls Merz. Her
mother would then call out to her 20-year-old daughter that
Wallenberg was on the phone.
"He just asked whether it was snowing, the weather. He wanted all
the talk," says Merz. "He was very interested in horseracing. I
think he wanted to buy a horse."
Says Merz, "this went on half a year, and then it stopped."
Today, almost 65 years later, Russia should provide definitive
answers about what befell Wallenberg while the last few people who
knew him - chief among them his sister - are still alive.
Wallenberg | A STUDY
OF HEROES | General