A Wing-Clipped Dove
Righteous Gentile By John Bierman Viking, 216 pp., $12.95
SOMEWHERE in the Soviet Union, locked away in a prison cell, Raoul Wallenberg, one of the greatest heroes of this century, may still be alive. During the latter stages of World War II. Wallenberg, then a young Swedish diplomat, worked feverishly to counter the forces of the notorious German SS leader Adolf Eichmann and the Hungarian terrorist group, the Arrow Cross, in their attempt to destroy the Hungarian Jewish population. It is estimated that he was directly responsible for saving well over 100,000 lives. But in 1945, when Russian troops captured Budapest, where Wallenberg was working, the Soviets arrested him as a spy, and his whereabouts since then have been unknown.
During the past 35 years, movements within Sweden and worldwide calling for an investigation of the Wallenberg case have flickered on and off, burning brightly for short periods each time a possible lead is discovered, and gradually fading when the lead fails to budge the Soviets, who have steadfastly claimed that Wallenberg died in prison in 1947. But each time the Wallenberg case has threatened to completely fade away into anonymity, a new piece of evidence has cropped up to support the possibility that Wallenberg is still alive. In his painstakingly researched book Righteous Gentile, John Bierman has gathered together the evidence which has been collected to date to support this theory and has supplemented the evidence with his own interviews of key sources to provide a fascinating biographical account of Raoul Wallenberg.
The first half of the book tells of how Wallenberg became involved in the effort to save the Hungarian Jews and contains eye-witness accounts of many of his heroic and ingenious efforts while in Budapest. Bierman plays up Wallenberg's heroism by contrasting it against the atrocities that were committed in Hungary at the time, especially by Eichmann, Wallenberg's arch-enemy and a man utterly dedicated to Hitler's Final Solution--the absolute extermination of Jews in Europe.
OF ALL the Nazi war criminals, he was perhaps the most cold-heartedly sinister, a man so evil that years after the war he could say without reservation, "I will jump into my grave laughing because the fact that I have the deaths of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction." Bierman tells of the death marches--organized by Eichmann--which claimed tens of thousands of lives. And the Hungarian terrorists were no better than the Nazis; in some cases they were even worse. They roamed the streets of Budapest in packs, randomly terrorizing and executing Jews. The city had erupted in a frantic wave of violence--all of it directed against the Jews--and as the Russians advanced closer and closer to the city, German and Arrow Cross soldiers seemed only more bent on killing. Fortunately, Bierman avoids preaching and moralizing about the evils of Naziism, choosing instead to let these actions speak for themselves.
Amidst this chaos, Wallenberg--sent by the otherwise largely inactive and neutral Swedes to help evacuate Jews from Hungary--struggled frantically to save those he could. Working through official channels when possible, and sometimes going under cover, Wallenberg managed to distribute phony Swedish passports to thousands of Jews. Often this meant putting his own life on the line. In a scene that might be taken from an Errol Flynn movie, Wallenberg once stood up to a German officer attempting to round up Jews for a march, saying, "If you want to take them, you will have to shoot me first." If Eichmann was the kind of man who could relish the anguished pain of millions of people, Wallenberg was a man who could not bear to witness the pain of one individual. It seems as though Wallenberg--who, as a well-to-do Gentile, could have sat through the war in comparative comfort in Sweden--felt personally responsible for helping the Jews. Before he left on his mission to Budapest, according to Bierman, he told a friend, "I cannot stay in Sweden beyond the beginning of July. Every day costs human lives."
When Eichmann, his German troops, and the Arrow Cross were finally driven out of Budapest by the Soviets, Wallenberg began planning recovery programs for the devastated Jews. But the Soviets considered him politically dangerous and on January 17, 1945, they charged him with spying and arrested him. The second half of Righteous Gentile consists largely of transcripts of interviews conducted on and off over the last 35 years by the Swedish organizations with those released from Soviet prisons who claimed to have seen Wallenberg in jail. Yet the Soviets have continued to proclaim his death. Immediately after the war, Sweden was reluctant to press the Soviets for information concerning Wallenberg for fear of upsetting relations between the countries. But recurring evidence offered by former Soviet prisoners has kept a widespread feeling alive that the Russians have not been telling the truth about the Wallenberg case.
But even if it can be proven that Wallenberg did not die in 1947, as the Soviets insist, that by no means insures that he is alive today. Nevertheless, as long as the possibility exists--and it does--that Raoul Wallenberg is still alive, the search to find him must remain alive as well. Books like Righteous Gentile must nag at our collective conscience. Our truly great humanitarians come too few and far between for us to let them sink away in ignominy.