January 17 of this year marked the 70th anniversary of the arrest and disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, Hungary. The full circumstances of his fate have never been determined. Even though Wallenberg has now been formally declared dead in his native country of Sweden, the search for answers continues.
In September, a group of nearly 80 international Wallenberg experts, with the support of leading international human rights organizations and research institutions specializing in the study of the Holocaust and the Cold War – such as the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (Florence, Italy), the Holocaust Memorial Center (Budapest) and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War History Project (Washington, DC) – launched a new international research project, the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70).
The group includes relatives of Holocaust victims rescued by Wallenberg as well as individuals incarcerated together with him in Soviet prisons. Former Swedish and Russian officials who over the years were involved in the investigation of the Wallenberg case have also joined in, as have numerous private individuals, among them the British author John le Carré.
The primary goal of RWI-70 is to pool international expertise to create an effective, coordinated work plan, a blueprint for solving the Wallenberg case.
As part of the initiative, researchers will conduct a Raoul Wallenberg International Roundtable, scheduled for March 2016. The symposium will bring together international scholars to discuss how to obtain access to essential documentation in Russian and other international archives.
RAOUL WALLENBERG showed remarkable courage when in July 1944, at age 31, he accepted a diplomatic appointment to go to Hungary to confront the ruthless Nazi death machinery. By the time of Wallenberg’s arrival, it had swallowed up 500,000 Jews of the Hungarian countryside and the fewer than 200,000 Jewish residents remaining in the capital were about to meet the same fate.
Driven by Wallenberg’s relentless energy, a wide network of aides comprised of diplomatic colleagues, the Hungarian resistance and private individuals managed to save thousands of Budapest’s Jews.
Already by the end of the war, Wallenberg’s reputation had achieved legendary status. However, in January 1945, he himself became a victim when he disappeared as a prisoner in Stalin’s Gulag. Largely abandoned to his fate by his home country, the disgraceful lack of efforts on his behalf prompted a public apology to Wallenberg’s family by the Swedish prime minister Göran Persson in 2001.
Wallenberg’s parents, Maj and Fredrik von Dardel, as well as his siblings, Nina Lagergren and Guy von Dardel, devoted their lives to learn the truth about what happened to him.
In October 1989, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev invited Wallenberg’s immediate family to Moscow to return some of his personal effects, such as his diplomatic passport as well as his calendar and address book, which allegedly had been discovered by accident in a storage room of the KGB just a short time before.
Guy von Dardel developed this opening in Swedish-Soviet relations further and in 1990, he formed The International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg. In the following months, this commission received permission to review important Soviet-era archival collections. The Russian government provided unprecedented access to Russia’s most important isolator prison in the city of Vladimir, before KGB officials intervened and stopped the research.
A 10-year investigation by an official Swedish-Russian working group that followed yielded many important results, but could not answer the central questions of the Wallenberg case: Why did Stalin decide to arrest him and why was he never released? And what happened to Raoul Wallenberg in the crucial summer of 1947, when his trail breaks off in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison?
Since 2001, researchers have tried to continue a constructive dialogue with Russian authorities. Unfortunately, as was the case during the 1990s, Russian officials have consistently refused access to key documentation, especially highly relevant files kept in the archives of Russia’s intelligence and security services, as well as collections that could reveal much-needed information about how the Soviet leadership assessed Wallenberg’s case through the years.
WE FIRMLY believe that the mystery of Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance can be solved. We base this conviction not on imaginary hopes, but on solid experience and the expertise of decades of research.
Instead of speculating what information about the Wallenberg case may or may not be available to Russian authorities, we have intentionally focused our efforts on requesting access to documentation we definitely know exists in Russian archives, but has remained classified. We strongly believe that if full and direct access to this material were granted, it would result in significant progress in the search for Wallenberg’s fate.
This approach has already yielded important results, including the discovery of documentation that appears to show that Wallenberg may have been alive six days after July 17, 1947, the day Soviet authorities have claimed for decades as the official date of his death. This documentation can provide essential leads and clues to additional information that researchers so far have not been made aware of.
Over the years, we have worked hard to foster closer cooperation and exchange among international researchers, including Russian experts. We have also tried to encourage the countries who have honored Raoul Wallenberg as an honorary citizen – the US, Canada, Israel and Australia – to take independent action with the Russian government to determine the fate of their own national. Canada in particular has been very responsive to these efforts.
We feel very strongly that in the current, increasingly restrictive, political climate in Russia, the Wallenberg case can serve as an important test case.
It is of the utmost importance to ensure that at least a minimum of a truly meaningful dialogue with Russian officials continues regarding these still-sensitive historical and human rights issues. It is essential to ensure that the door on such discussions does not close entirely.
Our efforts are intended to underscore the importance of the role Wallenberg played during one of the darkest chapters of recent European history.
His mission was true humanistic philosophy in action. He left behind his comfortable life in Sweden and threw himself into the task of making this very concept a reality. Raw courage, both physical and moral, is Wallenberg’s enduring legacy, one that continues to resonate strongly today. For that, he not only has earned the many honors that he has received, but he also deserves something more. He deserves justice.
We should show the same determination as Wallenberg did, in the face of overwhelming odds, and continue to demand the full facts about his disappearance and that of others like him, past and present, missing in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia or today’s Syria, Mexico or Sudan.
For a rescuer who became a tragic victim, this would be a most appropriate tribute. The writer is the coordinator for The Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70).
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