Chatting with fellow inmates in the yard of a Soviet detention facility in 1963, Marvin Makinen from Michigan had limited interest in Raoul Wallenberg’s fate.
Freshly sentenced to Soviet prison for espionage, the young American student had problems of his own. He feared he might never return home.
Yet it was precisely that traumatic experience that set Makinen on the path to becoming an expert in the disappearance of Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis and later vanished behind the Iron Curtain.
Makinen, 73, and other Wallenberg scholars are looking on with ambivalence this month as Sweden, Russia and other countries celebrate the hero’s actions on the occasion of his centennial birthday.
A former key member of the Swedish-Russian Working Group for Determining the Fate of Raoul Wallenberg, Makinen believes that Sweden and Russia have no interest in exposing the truth about Wallenberg. Other members of the group, which has disbanded, say they share his opinion.
Makinen's research originated in his chats with fellow prisoners from Soviet penitentiaries. What they said suggests to Makinen that Wallenberg had lived long past the 1947 official date of death that the Russians have listed for him.
After his release through an exchange deal in 1963, Makinen completed his studies to become a physician and later professor of biochemistry at the University of Chicago. In parallel he began researching the Wallenberg case.
Wallenberg, a diplomat from neutral Sweden, issued diplomatic protective passports to Jews. He arrived in Budapest in July 1944 as a delegate of the War Refugee Board, a relief body set up by US President Franklin Roosevelt.
Wallenberg’s last confirmed sighting was in January 1945, before Soviet authorities arrested him on espionage charges.
In 2001, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, said the Russian state “profoundly regretted” that Wallenberg died in Russia after being arrested “for political reasons.” The Russians maintain that Wallenberg died on Jan. 17, 1947 but have yet to produce documents in support.
Makinen, meanwhile, says that during his incarceration in Russia, three unrelated individuals told him that a Swede was imprisoned in Vladimir Prison. One Polish prisoner told Makinen that the Swede’s name was “Van den Berg.”
Both Sweden and Russia have declined Makinen’s requests for lists of Swedes known to have been in Soviet custody. He says he needs that information to see if the Swede from Vladimir Prison could have been someone other than Wallenberg.
The time that Makinen spent in the Soviet prison affected his attitude on the Wallenberg research on two levels, he told JTA.
“My own experience at Vladimir Prison helped me understand the reality there," Makinen said. "Also, I feel an obligation to Wallenberg because I was there.”
Makinen’s inquiries led to a hypothesis that challenges the official Russian version on Wallenberg’s death. Makinen set out to see if Wallenberg had been secretly kept at Vladimir Prison.
In 1991, he became a consultant to the newly formed Swedish-Russian Working Group for Determining the Fate of Raoul Wallenberg. It had been one of the first times following the collapse of the Soviet Union that a Western team of researchers gained permission to access Soviet archives. Many regarded it as potentially the most important development in the attempt to understand what happened to Wallenberg.
Along with Ari Kaplan, a computer expert and fellow Working Group consultant, Makinen set out to explore his theory that Wallenberg had been kept secretly at Vladimir Prison. The two researchers designed a complex database analysis of the cell occupancy at the prison from 1947 to 1972 based on partial Russian prison records.
In the analysis, Kaplan and Makinen show that some rooms in the overpopulated prison had remained empty -- on paper, at least -- for more than nine consecutive months at a time. To Makinen, this suggested a prisoner or prisoners had been kept there but were not listed on the registry. Moscow denied his request for more prison records, Makinen said.
The final sighting of Wallenberg at Vladimir Prison is from 1970 by a cleaning woman who worked there. She picked out Wallenberg’s photo when asked to identify the foreign prisoner who had been kept there, Makinen says. A former warden corroborated the sighting.
The last sighting of Wallenberg was in 1981: Albert Holosy, a Hungarian national, said a nurse at a psychiatric institute outside Moscow had pointed out a man in a wheelchair as Wallenberg.
Makinen says it “makes a lot of sense,” but the Swedish Foreign Ministry discounted the sighting.
“The way in which the Swedes discounted that sighting is typical,” said Susan Mesinai, a New York-based independent researcher in the Working Group, which was disbanded in 2001. “But that time it hurt.”
A report by the Swedish Embassy in Moscow said the sighting was dismissed because at the address given, there was “only a small house which couldn’t accommodate any psychiatric facility.”
Mesinai, however, says she went to the locale and found a large building that matched the description of the Hungarian witness.
The Swedish government also has refused requests that it ask Interpol to open an investigation into Wallenberg’s fate, says Max Grunberg, a Dutch-Born human rights campaigner.
“There’s a lot of commemorative events going on now, but very little attempt to see what actually happened to Wallenberg. It's frustrating,” Makinen says.
Sweden held its national commemoration event Aug. 4, Wallenberg’s 100th birthday. In October, it will hold a joint event in the Netherlands with the Israeli, Hungarian and American embassies. Russia also will see a large commemoration event for Wallenberg that month.
The Swedish Foreign Ministry did not reply to JTA’s request for a comment in time for the publication of this article. According to Swedish official records, Stockholm has sent to the Soviets dozens of requests for information on Wallenberg.
Perceived foot-dragging on Sweden’s part may be connected to an unconfirmed report that Sweden and Russia may have discussed a prisoner swap involving Wallenberg in 1964, Makinen said. There are no indications that talks progressed.
Mesinai describes the Russian and Swedish governments as “locked into a policy of denial.” She adds that “They expect that if they hold out long enough, the world will forget. This is where Raoul's heroism plays a decisive factor.”
Mesinai believes the Working Group came “very, very close” to finding promising leads before it was disbanded.
Vadim Birstein, a Moscow-born Wallenberg expert who lives in the US, is more skeptical. He said the researchers of the Swedish-Russian Working Group lacked knowledge of the Russian language, experience in historical research and background in secret services to produce a top-quality report.
In 1991, Birstein and another researcher were allowed access briefly to post-Soviet archives as representatives of the Memorial, a historical and civil rights society.
Two weeks into their work they found a document proving that Wallenberg had stayed in two prisons in Moscow, Lubyanka and Lefortovo. This contradicted the Russian official version, which included only Lubyanka. Birstein and his colleague were denied access to state archives soon thereafter.
Susanne Berger was another former researcher in the Swedish-Russian Working Group on Wallenberg’s fate.
“The Russians are no longer willing to cooperate on the Wallenberg investigation,” Berger said. Both Sweden and Russia have relegated the case to discussion as a historic issue, not a missing person matter.
The Wallenberg case is seen as an attempt to undermine Russian heritage and “attack Russia’s image,” Berger said, and that Wallenberg experts will be “treading water” until Sweden and others press Russia to release more data.
Even without funding or official frameworks, Berger, Mesinai, Kaplan, Makinen and Birstein continue their research as volunteers or authors.
“One can’t help but be moved by the fate of this man," Berger said. "For me and for the other researchers, his case symbolizes that one person does matter.”