Family seeks to discover fate of Swedish WWII hero Raoul Wallenberg
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A Moscow court on Monday began hearing a lawsuit brought by the descendants of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during WWII. The family suspects Russian secret services played a role in his death.
The first hearing in the case takes place on Monday at Moscow’s Meshchansky court and marks a major milestone in relatives and historians’ decades-long quest to unlock the mystery surrounding Wallenberg’s final days.
Between July and December 1944, Wallenberg risked his life on an almost daily basis by using his diplomatic status as Sweden’s special envoy to Budapest to issue travel documents and set up safe houses to protect the city’s persecuted Jews. Survivors and people in the young Swede’s immediate entourage have often hailed Wallenberg for his bravery, recounting, for example, how he once climbed onto the roof of an Auschwitz-bound train, handing out Swedish travel passes to the desperate hands reaching out from the windows and doors of the train – all the while dodging German bullets.
Wallenberg is also credited with dissuading a German officer from ordering a massacre in the Hungarian capital’s ghetto, which housed an estimated 70,000 people at the time.
Wallenberg, who was born into one of Sweden’s wealthiest and most influential families and had nothing to gain from his courageous acts, quickly became known as “the angel of Budapest”.
But as the war was winding down in January 1945, the 32-year-old diplomat was suddenly arrested by the Soviet Red Army along with his driver on the outskirts of the Hungarian capital and was never seen in public again.
Closed archives, censored documents
The reasons for Wallenberg’s detention have never been fully explained. Russian versions of his presumed death have been widely disputed due to the lack of hard evidence.
“We have serious doubts about the official Russian version concerning Raoul’s death,” Wallenberg’s niece Marie Dupuy told FRANCE 24 in an email, explaining why the family is suing the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB, in a bid to force it to open up its archives. The archives, which house files dating from the FSB’s Soviet-era predecessor, the KGB, are believed to contain key documents related to the Wallenberg case.
“It’s become more and more obvious that there are important documents in the Russian archives,” Dupuy said.
For decades, researchers and Wallenberg family members have tried to get access to the files but documents have either been heavily censored before being handed over or not been made available at all. Although the Russian archives were opened for a brief period in the beginning of the 1990s, they were re-classified following the discovery of a ground-breaking document that showed Wallenberg had been transferred from one prison to another – confirming researchers’ convictions that there are plenty more Wallenberg files in those archives.
Prisoner No. 7
According to an official Soviet statement in 1957, Wallenberg died of a heart attack – aged just 34 – in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison on July 17, 1947. But in more recent years, former KGB officials have come forward and stated that Wallenberg was actually executed on that day. Unverified eyewitness accounts and Russian prison documents referring to a certain “Prisoner No. 7”, however, strongly indicate that this prisoner was in fact Wallenberg – and that the prisoner was still alive a full six days after the Russians claim the Swede had died. Perhaps even longer.
“For one, the chance that a generally very healthy, 34-year-old man would succumb to a sudden heart attack is exceedingly low. Secondly, Russian officials have essentially acknowledged that the alleged cause of Wallenberg’s death was almost certainly an invented version of events,” Wallenberg expert Susanne Berger, who has researched the case since the 1990s, told FRANCE 24.
“Contrary to official claims, progress in the case is possible – relevant documentation does exist,” she said. Berger is a member of The Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70), the working group that filed the litigation along with Wallenberg’s family earlier this year.
"Both foreign and Russian researchers continue to work in Russia under very difficult circumstances,” Berger said.
A FRANCE 24 request for comment from the Russian authorities on the accusations they face in court went unanswered.
Motives remain to hide truth
Despite more than 70 years having passed since Wallenberg's disappearance, Berger said there are several reasons for why Moscow might still feel compelled to keep the truth about Wallenberg’s fate under wraps.
“The Kremlin apparently feels that the revelation of the truth about historically sensitive cases like that of Raoul Wallenberg […] runs counter to its current policy of promoting only ‘useful’ history, meaning the presentation of historical events in ways that serve to reinforce President [Vladimir] Putin’s idea of a strong, powerful Russia,” she said.
“The Putin government has generally been very reluctant to reveal any information about crimes committed by the former Soviet security service [KGB], whose successor organisations and institutions remain very influential in Russian society today,” she said.
Wallenberg’s niece said that neither she, nor her family, will give up in the fight for the truth.
“I’m doing this for my grandparents and for my father, who dedicated more than 70 years to this fight, without financial aid and without the minimum help from officials. Raoul has become a symbol known the world over [for his bravery], but few things have ever been done for him.”
“I’m certain that the truth will come to light one day.”