Turning every stone

Could Bill Perleberg, a gardener living in Tasmania, really have been Raoul Wallenberg?

By JOSHUA PRAGER
June 4, 2010 22:54
Bill Perleberg in Tasmania

BillPerlebrg311. (photo credit: .)

In August 2002, Christopher Tuck, a shipbuilder in Australia, saw a photo of Raoul Wallenberg in England’s Daily Telegraph and called out to his wife: “That man was at our wedding!” Tuck knew the man as Bill Perleberg, a gardener who had lived for decades in a shack on a mountain in Tasmania. Perleberg was old but never specific about his age. He said he was from Sweden.

Wallenberg was also from Sweden. He had been a diplomat who had safeguarded some 20,000 Jews in Hungary from the Nazis. The Soviets had arrested him in January 1945 at age 32. He had since disappeared into Soviet captivity. If alive, he was 90.

Tuck told John Heenan, a retired car dealer in Scotland he had met through church, of his suspicion. They had no photographs of Perleberg as a young man. But they saw the old man in photos of the young Wallenberg – the shape of his mouth, the angle of his eye sockets. And after they read up on Wallenberg, they were all but certain that the most famous missing casualty of World War II – an honorary citizen in four countries and on stamps in eight – was alive in Tasmania.

In time, Heenan told this to Perleberg. “There were no denials,” he says. “He said, ‘I don’t understand why [you and] Chris would believe that.’” There were several reasons. Like Wallenberg, Perleberg spoke many languages, he told the men, including Swedish, Russian and Hungarian. Like Wallenberg, he had, he said, studied architecture in the US before the war, become a Swedish diplomat and helped save Jews during the war, and been a Soviet prisoner after the war.

Heenan and Tuck wished to corroborate their finding. And so, Heenan lifted hair from the brush Perleberg kept on the sill opposite his bedroom. He hoped to test it against a DNA sample from Wallenberg’s younger half-brother, Guy von Dardel.

For 60 years, the particular horror of the Raoul Wallenberg story had been that his family continued to hope he was alive. Their belief, if far-fetched, was understandable. The Soviets had furnished no hard proof of Wallenberg’s death. (In April, two researchers brought to light a document from the Russian security archives that may prove Wallenberg was interrogated six days after his alleged death in 1957.)

And testimonies that Wallenberg was living, albeit unsubstantiated, never ceased. Many were recanted. (Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal said, in 1974 and 1978 respectively, that their recent avowals that Wallenberg was alive in the gulag and a psychiatric hospital in Irkutsk had been mistaken.)

Wallenberg’s mother, Maj, and stepfather, Fredrik, suffered with each dashed hope. And in February 1979, one month after another testimony proved faulty, they committed suicide. (Their suicides were not known until I wrote about them in The Wall Street Journal in 2009.) Responsibility for Wallenberg fell to his two half-siblings. Over the coming decades, sister Nina tended to the commemoration of his deeds. Brother Guy continued to look for him.

The search and an indeterminate illness had drained von Dardel when in June 2004 he received a long letter from Heenan about an unnamed man whose bio uncannily matched Wallenberg’s. Wrote Heenan: “We are convinced we have found your brother!!” Von Dardel, then 84, turned over the letter to a fellow physicist who for years had helped him search for his missing sibling.

“We had this working model,” says Marvin Makinen. “Leave no stone unturned.” This was undoubtedly the last stone.

Heenan told Makinen of Perleberg and his lock of hair. And so, Makinen scraped von Dardel’s cheek, and on August 28, 2006, sent a letter to Heenan. It began: “With this document, I, Guy Frederik von Dardel, certify that the hair strands and tissue samples (buccal membrane scrapings of the inner cheek) transported by Professor Marvin W. Makinen were obtained by him from my body and with my consent. These materials are given for the sole purpose of forensic DNA analysis to identify my maternal half-brother Raoul Gustav Wallenberg and to demonstrate genetic relatedness.”

The letter stipulated that the test results could be revealed only to von Dardel, his wife and two daughters. Von Dardel signed the letter in a shaky, slanting script.

Heenan however did not do the DNA test because, he writes, “I did not know the provenance of the sample” mailed to him. And Guy died last August at age 90 having not realized the great quest of his life.

TWO MONTHS later, in October 2009, Kris Fegyl checked his friend Perleberg into Royal Hobart Hospital in Tasmania. Perleberg had gangrene in his right foot. A clerk asked Perleberg his history and he responded that he was Swedish, says Fegyl. Fegyl shook his head no. “I talked to them after,” he says.

Fegyl believed Perleberg was German because, he says, “he prattled on in German.” Also, his oldest friends were German. But Fegyl was not certain.

Soon after, Perleberg asked Fegyl to fetch a tin from his bedroom. Fegyl did. Inside was an income tax notice, two maps of China, a copy of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, tea, his father’s death certificate, photos of Perleberg as a toddler and teen and two German passports that contained the bare facts of a life.

“Born: Stettin, December 4, 1922. Lives: Hobart, Tasmania. Occupation: landscape gardener. Shape of face: oval. Eyes: blue. Height: 175 cm. Distinguishing marks: none.”

On February 5, Perleberg died. Over the coming days, his friends speculated that he had come to Tasmania to escape wartime experiences. But they knew next to nothing of what those experiences might have been.

Jean Gowland, his neighbor of 40 years, says Perleberg told her that “he was a Brownshirt. Part of the Hitler Youth.” He “reckoned the CIA and everybody else had dossiers on him,” she says. He told her that he wasn’t German.

Raeburn Cameron-Smith, his pastor of 20 years, says Perleberg told him that he was German. He also told him that he had been an SS officer, had met Wallenberg, had helped to rescue Jews and had been dispatched to the Soviet Union.

Fegyl, who inherited Perleberg’s belongings, says Perleberg told him that, like Wallenberg, “the Russians thought he was a spy. He told me the Russian officer put a Luger up to his head and asked him, ‘Where’s me bloody vodka?’ and then he got locked up in the hoosegow.”

AFTER PERLEBERG died, researchers helped me unearth his files at the National Archives and Records Administration, the Deutsche Dienststelle and the International Tracing Service. And Perleberg was not a Soviet prisoner. Or an SS officer. Or a Swedish diplomat. Or anything that would have generated a CIA dossier.

On March 4, 1941, Horst Siegfried Willi Perleberg received his Nazi party membership card, number 8611531. He was conscripted into the Wehrmacht seven months later. He served in artillery, transport and infantry. British troops took him prisoner and on November 2, 1945, put him to work in Lübeck, a port city in northern Germany. His hometown Stettin had been subsumed into Poland, and Perleberg, displaced, boarded the SS Anna Salén for Australia on February 20, 1952. For much of the next 48 years, he lived alone in his shack alongside possums and kookaburras, washing himself with vinegar and transcribing shortwave broadcasts.

And so, the last man Guy von Dardel had hoped was Raoul Wallenberg was in fact a rank-and-file Nazi.

“Even though it sounded crazy, there was always a tiny hope – a very tiny hope,” says von Dardel’s daughter Louise. “The quest of the family has always been to have proof.”

In time, the family had proof regarding Perleberg. The physicist Makinen tested his and von Dardel’s DNA. They did not match. Despite that fact, and the facts that Perleberg had blue eyes and Wallenberg brown, and that found passports and military records make clear that one was a German and one a Swede, Tuck and Heenan still insist that the two men may have been one and the same.

“I’m aware of individuals who have adopted other identities,” says Tuck. Adds Heenan, “I can’t make that quantum leap.”

It is human nature to want to believe in a miraculous ending, in ultimate justice. We all want to.

And so, it is no surprise that Tuck and Heenan are just the most recent of scores who attested to seeing Wallenberg alive, or that a family held onto the impossible hope that they were right, or that an old recluse let others believe that he was the great, missing humanitarian.

But sometimes the humanitarian disappears into the gulag never to be heard from again. Sometimes the search for him is to no avail and ends in suicides. And sometimes the recluse is just one of tens of millions of foot-soldiers who fought World War II and then fled the most mundane of torments – a lost love.

“It wasn’t the war,” says Helma Stevenson, a friend to Perleberg for 23 years. “It was a woman.”


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