May 4, 2012
Fighting for the Truth in the Wallenberg Case
By Susanne Berger and Vadim Birstein
The story of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman
and diplomat who went to Hungary in 1944 to rescue the Jews
of Budapest, bears all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy.
Young and idealistic, he fought one totalitarian regime
Nazism only to fall victim to another
Stalinism when he was arrested by Soviet forces in
Hungary in January 1945. As such, his case seamlessly links
the two defining events of the 20th century the Holocaust
and the Cold War.
The full circumstances of his fate after July 23, 1947,
the last confirmed date of his presence in?the Soviet prison
system, have never been established, and the search for
him continues to this day. But in the age of conflicts in
Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, weapons of mass destruction and
global warming, does it make sense to insist on the truth
about one man who disappeared 67 years ago?
Over time, Wallenberg has come to personify the importance
of individual action and individual rights first
as a rescuer of tens of thousands of lives in Budapest and
later as a victim of Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union.
Wallenberg's humanitarian achievements are widely recognized?and
are the focus of attention?during the current centennial
celebrations of his birth.?
In a few short months after his arrival as Sweden's special
envoy in Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg created a complex
bureaucracy that provided persecuted Jews with desperately
needed aid. They received special protective papers, the
so called Schutzpass, and were housed in separate buildings
that flew the Swedish flag, indicating that they were officially
protected by that country's neutral status.
Wallenberg's organization employed 340 people and included
a hospital to care for the sick as well as an orphanage.
He bought huge food stores on the black market that enabled
him to feed more than 1,000 people?per day. Already by the
end of the war, Wallenberg's reputation had achieved legendary
In contrast, his importance as a victim is much harder
to define. In the Soviet Union alone, roughly 27 million
people died during World War II, while about 20 million
more suffered in the gulag.
For these victims and their families to arrive at a sense
of justice, the truth about events must be established.
As the well-known international judge Thomas Buergenthal,
himself a survivor of Auschwitz, said in an interview with
The Washington Post several years ago, this process begins
and ends with each individual life: "Six million Jews
means nothing. If you want to have an impact, talk about
Indeed, the insistence on the truth about one man marks
the starting point in the ongoing struggle to define and
protect universal rights for all human beings. Remembrance,
too, is vital, but it is not enough on its own. Victims
need more than memorials. Wallenberg's brother, Guy von
Dardel, expressed this sentiment in a speech some years
back: "The truth can and will be found, and it will
be a monument more durable than marble."
The question of how one balances the rights of the individual
versus the interests of the state is as current today as
it ever was. For this debate alone, historic truth is critical,
and a democratic society has to insist on full disclosure.
That is precisely why Raoul Wallenberg matters so much today.
One can only hope that the continued insistence on the truth
about his fate will be yet another lasting legacy of his
Susanne Berger is a historical researcher and former
consultant to the Swedish-Russian working group that investigated
the fate of Raoul Wallenberg from 1991-2001. Vadim Birstein,
a geneticist and historian, is author of the recently published
book "Smersh, Stalin's Secret Weapon: Soviet Military
Counterintelligence in WWII."