The Wallenberg Mystery: Dartmouth Author’s Novel Looks at the Diplomat’s Life

Friday, April 24, 2015
W hen the writer Alan Lelchuk lived in Budapest from 1999 to 2000, teaching American literature at a local university, his errands routinely took him past a statue of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to death camps during World War II.

Lelchuk knew who Wallenberg was, of course, but to be surrounded by the presence of a man who worked fearlessly to save as many as he could, in the city where it happened, evoked the man in an immediate, vivid way.

“I became interested in him then and there,” Lelchuk said in an interview at his home in Canaan. His new novel Searching for Wallenberg has just been published by Mandel Vilar Press, a publishing arm of the non profit organization Americas for Conservation and the Arts. Lelchuck, who has taught literature and creative writing at Dartmouth College since 1985, will read from the book at the Norwich Bookstore next Wednesday.

Searching for Wallenberg is not a history, although Lelchuk researched scrupulously enough that he could have written it as non-fiction. Nor is it historical fiction. Rather, it’s a re-imagining of Wallenberg’s life and a philosophic investigation into his moral and physical fortitude. The title alludes to Lelchuk’s nearly 15-year-immersion in Wallenberg’s life, but in a broader sense it seems to refer to our own culture’s longing for leaders of unwavering conviction and courage.

In the novel Lelchuk’s alter ego, Dartmouth professor Manny Gellerman, goes to Budapest, begins looking into Wallenberg’s life, and in the process meets Zsuzsanna Frank, a woman in her late 50s who tells him that during the war her mother had an affair with Wallenberg — and she, Zsuzsanna, is the result.

She has documents and shadowy photographs, which she produces for a skeptical Gellerman while insisting she will only show him definitive proof when he lands her an American book contract for her memoir. As Gellerman’s research and travels brings him closer to the heart of Wallenberg, he enters into a kind of Socratic back-and-forth with the man himself, who reveals himself bit by bit as a person of limitless complexity.

“The more I learned about him, the more I knew how little I knew about him. I thought I would find the flaws in the man, but I didn’t find that. I found the mystery, the soul of the man. I didn’t want to simply provide an historical novel or a tidy book. I wanted to keep the mysteries alive,” Lelchuk said.

Lelchuk’s odyssey took him from Hungary to Sweden to Russia, and to the University of Michigan where Wallenberg, who studied architecture, received a B.A. in 1935 (along with future president Gerald Ford), a fact not known to many.

Wallenberg, who had a small trace of Jewish ancestry, came from an elite, powerful family of bankers and diplomats. His father died when Wallenberg was an infant, and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.

But, Lelchuk said, it was his paternal grandfather who insisted that Wallenberg get the kind of education that would broaden his world view. So as a young man, at his grandfather’s urging, Wallenberg went to Michigan, to South Africa, where he saw apartheid firsthand, and to Palestine.

At age 31, Wallenberg was sent to the Swedish legation in Budapest in the summer of 1944, partially at the behest of the American War Refugee Board, which worked with the Swedish government. His mission was to save as many Jews as he could.

It was known that mass shipments of some 400,000 Hungarian Jews to death camps had already occurred, under the aegis of Adolf Eichmann. Using his diplomatic status, Wallenberg gave Jews Swedish “passports” and set up a system of safe houses where they could live under the protection of Swedish neutrality. He was even known to physically remove Jews from the cattle cars in the Budapest train station.

But when the Soviets retook Budapest from the Nazis in January, 1945, Wallenberg was seized on suspicion of being an American spy, and taken out of Hungary. Was Wallenberg executed by the Soviets not long after he was brought to Russia, did he die of a heart attack in 1947, as the Soviets later maintained, or was he sent to the gulag, where he lived until he died, probably of disease?

Reports of Wallenberg sightings in the gulag, which continued into the mid-1970s, are rather like sightings in nature of a Siberian tiger or a snow leopard: rare, intoxicating and just suggestive or credible enough to keep the Wallenberg legend (and cottage industry of Wallenberg researchers and writers) alive.

“Existentially, anything is possible where the mysteries of Wallenberg are concerned,” Lelchuk said.

Some researchers, and other Wallenberg faithful, believe that Wallenberg lived on into the 1970s, but the only people who knew for certain are dead, and if there are Swedish or Russian records that confirm what happened to him, they are buried so deep they may never see the light of day. Both countries had ample reason to keep his fate a secret, Lelchuk said.

The Soviets would never admit that they had him, until deputy foreign minister Andrei Gromyko sent a communiqué to the Swedes in 1957, acknowledging he’d been held prisoner; and the Swedish government would never admit to not doing all it could to secure Wallenberg’s release once he was in Soviet custody.

Secret negotiations and prisoner exchanges were fairly common practice during the Cold War. The American government pushed the Swedish government to negotiate for Wallenberg, Lelchuk said, but the Swedes never bargained for him, although opportunities arose.

The question is, why?

Although neutral during the war, Sweden traded freely with Nazi Germany, which did not go unnoticed by Sweden’s occupied neighbors, Norway and Denmark. While many Swedes harbored Jews, and worked to save them, the official policy was non-intervention. Outside Sweden, Wallenberg was widely admired and extolled. In Sweden, Lelchuk said, he was seen as a non-conformist trouble-maker, an irritant and an obstacle to Swedish-Soviet relations. In Stockholm, Lelchuk was given free access to Swedish diplomatic papers — except for the period from 1945-1949. “I was told they were not available,” he said.

Over time, the Swedish establishment’s ambivalence toward one of their most famous citizens has begun to shift, Lelchuk said. “Now, he is seen as a real hero of the Swedish people, and concomitant with that is the shame of the government.”

Lelchuk recounted a meeting he had in Stockholm with an older Swede who, as a young man, had been in the officer training corps with Wallenberg. A commanding officer was railing against a trainee to the point of humiliation, when Wallenberg stepped forward. He rebuked the officer, telling him politely, but firmly, that he was abusing his position and should stop. The older Swede told Lelchuk that all the other trainees were stunned by Wallenberg’s moral authority and his serene confidence in his ability to alter the course of events.

His ability “to keep that cool steadily under different kinds of pressure,” said Lelchuk, was characteristic of him all the way through the war.

One of the young Jewish children Wallenberg saved in Budapest, Thomas Lantos, eventually came to the U.S., became a Congressman from California and worked to have Wallenberg named an honorary American citizen, only the second after Churchill. (Lantos’ daughter Katrina, who both campaigned for office herself, as well as managing campaigns for other politicians, including her father, later married Richard Swett, former Democratic Congressman from New Hampshire).

“This tree of Wallenberg has many branches,” Lelchuk said.

A Brooklyn boy who went off to study fiction writing with Wallace Stegner at Stanford in the early 1960s, Lelchuk has taught creative writing and literature at Dartmouth College since 1985. He has also received Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships to study and teach abroad, in Israel and Russia. When he was in Budapest, he was on the faculty of the American Studies program at Eotvos Lorand University.

Lelchuk is widely traveled and read, but, even so, his journey, actual and metaphoric, into the history of the war and the darkest recesses of 20th century political maneuvering, put him into new territory where nothing is as it seems on the surface.

“I’m an American boy, and I had to enter into these deep worlds of mystery and obfuscation,” he said. “It’s a terrible and scary story with him being in prison and no one getting him out. It’s a story with so many twists and personal turns.”

Through sheer persistence and luck, Lelchuk even managed to interview in Moscow an old Russian KGB officer who had interrogated Wallenberg after he was brought back to the Soviet Union; the man refused to tell him anything of significance, which was not a surprise.

“You sign on for secrecy for life,” Lelchuk said.

Although there have been numerous efforts over the years by investigators and committees to learn the truth, no one can say with certainty what happened. While Lelchuk has finished writing the novel, he doubts this is the end of Wallenberg for him, or for others who have brushed up against the magnitude of his achievement.

“There’s a power in unrequited justice that persists and is not satisfied to die,” he said.

Alan Lelchuk will read at the Norwich Bookstore at 7 p.m. on April 29. Reservations are required: call the bookstore at 802-649-1114.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.