18 JANUARY 1975, Page 12

International (6)

Is Wallenberg still alive?

Maurice Samuelson

Just thirty years ago, one of the noblest' individual exploits of the second world war came to an end and one of the cruellest mysteries of the post-war era began: the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish diplomat who had saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi death camps. He and his Hungarian driver were last seen in Budapest on January 17, 1945, with an escort of Soviet soldiers. As Wallenberg drove off, he told colleagues he was going to the headquarters of Marshal Malinovsky, but that he did not know whether he was to be a guest or a prisoner of the Red Army. Since that day, his wartime exploits in Budapest have made him a national hero in Sweden. But his disappearance has made him the object of continual anxiety and sorrow. To this day, the mystery of his fate is an irritant in Sweden's relations with the Soviet Union, flaring up periodically like a wound which cannot heal.

The son of a gifted, aristocratic family, Wallenberg had arrived in Budapest in July 1944 as a secretary at the Royal Swedish Legation. He was then thirty-two. Armed with neutral diplomatic status and with money from American-Jewish funds, his assignment was to set up a special section at the Legation to save as many people as possible from the Final Solution. Nearly half a million Jews had already been deported from Greater Hungary, most of them to Auschwitz. Now another 220,000 huddled in Budapest, anxiously watching as the Nazis pressed the Horthy regime to hand them over for slaughter.

Immediately on his arrival, Wallenberg spearheaded a drive by neutral embassies to issue thousands of protective papers. The Swedish passes enabled the bearer to return to his 'homeland' or to the seven states represented by Sweden. He encouraged the Hungarian government to stand up to Nazi pressure. He put thousands of people, especially children, into what he called "the internationally protected zone" — thirty-two houses flying the Swedish flag. His army of assistants, at one point numbering 600, followed Adolf Eichrnann's notorious 'death marches' with food and clothing and, where possible, brought deportees back to the relative safety of Budapest. By the time the Russians arrived in January 1945, Wallenberg had won the admiration of his colleagues and was recognised by many Jews and other unfortunates as a saviour.

Wallenberg's memory is cherished most of all by his mother, Mrs Maj von Dardel. Now in her eighties, she has not ceased hoping that she will see him again. Only last month, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in Stockholm to collect his Nobel literature prize, she asked if he knew anything about her son. Solzhenitsyn replied that after studying documents on the case, Wallenberg might be alive despite Soviet claims to the contrary.

Wallenberg would today be sixty-three years old. For the first twenty years after the war, the conviction that he was living was supported by eye-witness reports of former Soviet prisoners and by the inconsistency and vagueness of Soviet official statements.

Immediately after his departure with his Red Army escort in 1945, Soviet officials said he was under Soviet protection and being properly treated. But two months later, Hungarian radio claimed that he had been killed by Gestapo men. For the next twelve years, the Russians would refer to this report whenever Sweden renewed its inquiries about his fate. In 1952, however, several prisoners of war released by the Russians swore that they had either met Wallenberg, communicated with him or had heard of him in captivity in Moscow. Some of them said they had been in the same cells as his driver. Following the death of Stalin, Sweden pressed the Kremlin to make a thorough investigation.

In February 1957, Andrei Gromyko, then Deputy Foreign Minister, made the sensational disclosure that a prisoner called `Walenberg' had died in the Lubyanka prison of a heart attack in July 1947 and that his body had been immediately cremated without a post-mortem. Expressing his Government's regret and sympathies, Gromyko laid the blame on the "criminal activities" of the discredited Security Minister Abakumov who, like the head of the Lubyanka prison hospital, was no longer alive to throw additional light on the affair.

Far from accepting Gromyko's version, many Swedes now felt even more certain that Wallenberg might still be alive. Other witnesses. had come forward who claimed that Wallenberg had been seen or heard of in Soviet prisons in 1953 and 1954. With increasing irritation Moscow's only reply was that the testimony of "war criminals" could not be accepted.

The -next flurry of excitement came early in 1961 when a friend of Wallenberg's mother, Professor Nanna Svartz, met a Soviet colleague in Moscow who claimed to know all about the missing diplomat and said he was currently very sick in a mental hospital. This was supported by another Soviet medical man who advised the Swedish professor to write to Deputy Foreign Minister Semenov, requesting Wallenberg's repatriation on health grounds. • Madame Svartz received no reply to her letter and returned to Moscow two months later. To her consternation, the Russian now completely changed his story. He denied making the earlier statement, which he attributed to a misunderstanding. He also disclosed that Chairman Krushchev was angry and remonstrated with Madame Svartz for reporting the matter to the Swedish government.

Krushchev voiced his annoyance himself in June 1964 when, during a visit to Stockholm, he was told that Sweden still refused to abandon the case. A year later, Swedish Premier Erlander raised it during his own visit to Moscow. This time it was Premier Kosygin who denied that the Kremlin had a dossier on Wallenberg and reiterated Gromyko's story about the prisoner who had died in 1947.

Three months later, in September 1965, the Swedish Government published a White Book containing documents on the case since 1957. Since 1965, no hard evidence has emerged to warrant a new demarche. But the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm still follows up every scrap of information which might point to its long-lost Secretary to Budapest. In their files is the testimony of a Berliner who claims he met Wallenberg in a transit room in Moscow's .Lefortovo prison in 1949. The Swede had reportedly told him that, after two years in solitary confinement, he had been sentenced to twenty-five years hard labour in Vorkuta.

Time alone will finally extinguish hopes that he is still living in some wintry wasteland. But in the hearts of his Swedish countrymen and all who cherish humanity and liberty, Raoul Wallenberg will never die.