Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Wallenberg curse

The Wall Street Journal has just published a series of articles about Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat working in Budapest who saved thousands of Jews but who went missing in the last months of the Second World War. In particular, the newspaper draws attention to a diary kept by Raoul’s stepfather, Fredrik von Dardel, for over 25 years, most of which is about the search for Raoul.

Raoul Wallenberg’s story is well-known and well documented. Wikipedia has a fully-referenced summary, and there is a long biography on the website of The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. There are also dozens of books about the man, many of them on Googlebooks, such as Wallenberg: Missing Hero by Kati Marton, which claims on the cover that he saved 100,000 Jews.

Wallenberg was born in 1912 into a wealthy Swedish family, three months after his father had died. In 1918, his mother married Fredrik von Dardel, and they had two children, Guy and Nina. In the 1930s, Wallenberg went to study architecture in the US, but then worked for a construction company in South Africa and a bank in Haifa. On returning to Stockholm, he joined the Central European Trading Company, owned by Kálmán Lauer a Hungarian-Jew. From the early 1940s, he began to travel to Hungary as Lauer’s aide, and was soon a part owner of the company and a director.

By the spring of 1944, Allied leaders were considering what to do about the persecution and deportation of Jews in Hungary. One consequence was that the American War Refugee Board sent a representative to Stockholm looking for someone willing and able to go to Budapest to organise a rescue programme. In July that year, Wallenberg travelled to the Hungarian capital as the First Secretary of the Swedish legation, and for the next six months organised safe housing and protective passports for Jews, saving tens of thousands of lives (possibly 100,000 as the Marton book claims, but certainly 20,000). At its peak, the rescue programme involved as many as 350 helpers.

In January 1945, though, the Soviet army entered Budapest, and Wallenberg was arrested under suspicion of being an American spy. He disappeared, almost certainly to a prison in Russia. In 1957, the Soviets announced that Wallenberg had actually died of a heart attack in 1947, but some believed/believe he might have been executed. A Swedish report in 2001 concluded as follows, ‘there is no fully reliable proof of what happened to Raoul Wallenberg’, so the manner and timing of his death remain a mystery. For the rest of their lives Wallenberg’s mother and stepfather fought to find out what had happened to Raoul, often against staunch resistance from the Swedish authorities. In 1979, they both committed suicide, acts which their daughter Nina Lagergren attributed to despair.

Thereafter, Nina and Guy continued their parents’ campaign for the truth, and to foster knowledge about their brother. Both appear to have recently contributed to a series of articles in The Wall Street Journal. The first is entitled The Wallenberg Curse - The Search for the Missing Holocaust Hero Began in 1945. The Unending Quest Tore His Family Apart. Another article explains where the mystery stands today; and a third piece provides an example of the diary kept by von Dardel.

Frederik von Dardel began writing the diary on 24 October 1952, his 34th wedding anniversary, and would maintain it until a year before his death. The diaries were donated to the Swedish National Archives in 1985, but were only made available to the public in 2000. Officials say no one has been very interested in them, at least not until The Wall Street Journal showed up. It claims to have read thousands of family journal entries, letters and documents, and hundreds of interviews - and to have been the first to read most of them.

The paper gives brief extracts from the first and last entries in this diary (translated by Amalia Johnsson). Of the first, on 24 October 1952, it says there are two paragraphs devoted to von Dardel’s wife, and that he then turns ‘to the stepson who had come to call him Papa’: ‘Raoul Wallenberg’s fate has lain like a dark cloud over our existence.’ And with regard to the last entry, 25 years later, on 28 April 1978, it says, von Dardel concluded the diary with two English words: ‘stone wall’.

The Wall Street Journal also gives another, longer extract from the diary, in which von Dardel explains how, in connection with the king’s 70th birthday, Raoul was awarded the medal ‘Illis quorum meruere labores’ (For Those Whose Labors Have Deserved It), partly as a result of efforts by Stockholm-based Austrian author Rudolph Philipp. Here are the last few paragraphs of the story as written in von Dardel’s diary.

12 November 1952
‘. . . it was nevertheless decided that Raoul, in connection with the rain of decorations on the king’s 70th birthday would receive ‘Illis quorum’. Philipp’s action also aimed for this distinction to mark the Foreign Ministry’s understanding that Raoul was still alive.

So it was also understood by all the newspapers save Svenska Dagbladet, which mentioned the news item under the headline Posthumous Distinction for Raoul Wallenberg.

This was irksome, especially as this paper is the lifeblood of our social circle. After I and several others had shaken up the editorial staff, they introduced in the regional edition, and in the following day’s Stockholm edition, a correct statement in a prominent place.’

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