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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OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.