Raoul Wallenberg is remembered as the brave Swede who arrived in Budapest in 1944 to head the Swedish diplomatic mission at a time of intense persecution of Hungarian Jews and as the Red Army approached from the East. Hundreds of thousands of Jews across Hungary had already been rounded up, moved into ghettos and forced onto deportation trains. Wallenberg managed to rescue thousands of those who had survived thus far by distributing so-called protective passports, or Schutz-Pass. Wallenberg did not, however, manage to save himself. In January 1945, after the Soviet Union captured eastern Budapest, he was detained by Soviet troops, possibly on suspicion of espionage. Wallenberg was never seen in public again. The Russians have previously claimed that he died in a prison in Moscow in 1947.
In Sweden, 27 August marked the fourth annual Raoul Wallenberg Day, an initiative launched following the Raoul Wallenberg Year in 2012, which was created with support from the Swedish government. The national memorial day was established after a survey showed that Wallenberg was hardly mentioned in Swedish schoolbooks. Neither had Sweden’s Jewish communities made any concerted efforts to uphold the renowned diplomat’s memory, according to Lena Posner-Körösi, former president of the Swedish Council of Jewish Communities and of the Stockholm Jewish Community. “More has been done to honour Wallenberg in the US, Canada and Israel than here,” refects Posner-Körösi. “There are still Jews around in Sweden who were personally rescued by Wallenberg…but he has not been a prominent figure in official Jewish contexts. Maybe that has something to do with the Swedish culture where individual, heroic deeds are not held up to the extent they are abroad. We tend to focus more on the collective.”
This August, fresh clues to Wallenberg’s fate emerged in the newly published diaries of the military man who ran the KGB from 1954 to 1958, Ivan Serov. “I have no doubts that Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947,” he wrote. The diaries were found inside the walls of a dacha in Moscow when Serov’s only granddaughter, who had inherited the home from her grandfather, hired workers to renovate the garage. They found hidden inside a wall some suitcases, within which were the diaries with a half-dozen pages devoted to the Wallenberg case.
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has since begged Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to release his body for burial. “As you probably know,” they wrote, “Raoul’s parents and his step-father are buried in Sweden and his half-sister, Nina, is alive and deserves to be able to visit her half-brother’s grave.” The letter comes just months after the Wallenberg family decided to have the renowned diplomat officially declared dead in Sweden. “We mourned and still mourn the fact that his life in liberty was too short,” the family wrote, “that he never was rescued himself, that his fate remains unknown”.
Yet over the last few years there has been a change in awareness of Wallenberg’s “truly heroic” deeds within the Jewish community, comments Posner-Körösi. And for a younger generation of Swedish Jews, Wallenberg seems to be a more prominent figure, suggests Adina Krantz, 28, who founded Zikaron, a non-profit organisation whose volunteers tour schools telling their grandparents’ stories of surviving the Holocaust. “In my experience, when you discuss the Holocaust among young people in Sweden, Wallenberg often comes up. When our lecturers visit schools, they talk a lot about moral courage, leadership and daring to speak up. We talk about how every person can make a difference. In this context, Wallenberg is of course extremely relevant,” says Krantz. Paradoxically, it is as his place in Sweden’s narrative of World War II continues to grow that the Swedish Tax Authority declared Wallenberg officially dead on 14 October.