OPINION: ‘We should not abandon Raoul Wallenberg’

"Raoul Wallenberg was one of the greatest heroes of humankind. He, who risked his life to save innocent lives, should not be left behind," writes Baruch Tenembaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, in this opinion piece.

OPINION: 'We should not abandon Raoul Wallenberg'
Raoul Wallenberg's diplomatic passport. Photo: NTB Sweden/Pressens Bild

On January 17th, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg disappeared from the face of the earth, together with his loyal aide, Vilmos Langfelder.

Six months earlier, on July 9th, 1944, he arrived in Budapest, as an emissary of Sweden, with the backing of the World Refugee Board. His mission was to try saving the remainder of the Jewish community in Hungary.

What he achieved in such a short period is nothing but extraordinary. His feats have been well documented and there is no need to dwell on them. To be sure, he managed to save tens of thousands of innocent lives from the Nazi extermination machinery and their Hungarian henchmen.

In January 1945, he sensed the war was ending on the Hungarian front. Eventually, the Soviet forces would expel the Nazis and become the new rulers. With that in mind and worrying about the fate of the Jewish refugees, he arranged a meeting with Marshal Rodyon Malinovsky, Supreme Commander of the Red Army in that region. The two men were supposed to meet at the Soviet Military Command situated in Debrecen, some 195 kilometres from Budapest.

On January 17th, unheeding his colleagues' warnings, he instructed Langfelder to drive him to Debrecen. When they arrived to their destination, rather than being escorted to Marshal Malinovsky's office, the two men were immediately arrested by the SMERSH (Soviet Military Intelligence Unit) and rushed to Moscow.

Ever since, Wallenberg and Langfelder just vanished from the face of the earth. Most accounts indicate that they were transferred to the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where they underwent harsh interrogation and at some point, summarily executed by their captors.

By the end of the 20th century, I had the privilege of establishing the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, together with my late friend, US Congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos (himself saved by Raoul Wallenberg). I have dedicated all my life to the Recognition of Goodness, one of the pillars of my Jewish education, and realised that nobody deserves our gratitude more than Raoul Wallenberg and all the brave women and men who reached out to the persecuted ones. Today, our NGO is presided by Mr Eduardo Eurnekian, a renowned businessperson and philanthropist, himself the son of survivors of the Armenian Genocide.

Raoul Wallenberg in his office in Budapest. Photo: Pressens Bild/Scanpix

Seventy-six years have elapsed from the day Wallenberg was apprehended. The Soviet Union has since collapsed and disintegrated. Russia has a new regime but even so, only vague figments of information came up to the surface regarding Wallenberg's fate.

One of them was in the form of a letter I received by the then deputy chief of mission of the Russian Federation in Washington DC, Mr Alexander Darchiev.

Mr Darchiev is one the most senior and seasoned diplomats in the Russian Foreign Service. For several years, he headed the North American Desk and nowadays he is the ambassador in Ottawa, Canada.

Darchiev's letter came in response to a letter I had sent weeks earlier, as founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation to President Vladimir Putin (through his then adviser, Mr Veniamin Yakovlev). I respectfully urged the Russian head of state to allow free and unfettered access to the historical KGB archives to shed light into the fate and whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg. I clarified that our NGO was not intending to put the blame on Russia for Wallenberg's disappearance, as we understood the historical context and made a clear difference between Stalin's Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

Mr Darchiev's response underscored the official position of the Russian Federation, as spelled out by the Russian part of the bilateral Working Group, which investigated the circumstances of Wallenberg's fate:

“Responsibility for the death of Mr. Wallenberg lies with the USSR leadership at that time and on J.V. Stalin personally. No other authority could deal with a Sweden diplomat, representative of a neutral state, a member of the 'Wallenberg House', well known abroad and to the Soviet Government.”

To me, Ambassador Darchiev's reply makes sense. Bearing in mind how things worked in the Stalinist Soviet Union, it is hard to believe that the detention and probable execution of such a high profile figure could have been made without leaving an extensive paper trail in the KGB archives.

If that is the case, why is Russia reluctant to allow access to the relevant archives? This question remains unanswered.

Why Raoul Wallenberg was apprehended in the first place and most likely executed? To be sure, Stalin was a ruthless and paranoid dictator. Human lives meant nothing to him. Perhaps, he thought Wallenberg was an American spy that could be used as a bargaining chip in Russia's post-war negotiations with her former allies?

An event in memory of Raoul Wallenberg, held in Stockholm in January 2020. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

Going back to Mr Darchiev's letter, I would like to stress the following sentence: “….the 'Wallenberg House' {was} well known abroad and to the Soviet Union”. One has to remember that the Wallenberg family was one of the most powerful and influential economic players in Sweden (that is even true today, to a great extent). This conglomerate had huge stakes in Swedish industries and financial groups. During the years of the war, the family businesses were co-managed by Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg (first cousins of Raoul's father, who passed away a few months before his son's birth). Amid Sweden's neutrality, the Wallenbergs engaged in profitable trade transactions with both Allies and the Axis. Marcus was in charge of the deals with the former and Jacob with the latter.

Had Stalin known about this, one could not rule out that he intended to blackmail the Wallenbergs by holding their relative as a hostage. Alas, neither the Swedish government nor the Wallenberg family had displayed any real efforts to achieve Raoul's release, other than some perfunctory gestures. That being the case, it is possible that Stalin had lost his patience and reached the conclusion that Raoul Wallenberg was expendable.

Our NGO has closely worked with Raoul's late half-sibling, Prof Guy von Dardel and Nina Lagergren, who unfortunately passed away without realising their dream to bring their brother back home. We continue our journey together with Raoul's tireless grandnieces, Louise de Dardel and Marie Dupuy.

Raoul's mother, Maj, and his stepfather, Fredrik von Dardel, both took their own lives in 1979, out of despair.

I am not deterred by time. I call upon the Russian authorities to enable unfettered access to the KGB archives as they might contain the clues into Raoul's fate. I also urge the Swedish government to demand answers from the Russians.

Raoul Wallenberg was one of the greatest heroes of humankind. He, who risked his life to save innocent lives, should not be left behind.

Written by Baruch Tenembaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation

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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.