Raoul Wal­len­berg: The Hero­ic Life and Mys­te­ri­ous Dis­ap­pear­ance of the Man Who Saved Thou­sands of Hun­gar­i­an Jews from the Holocaust

Ingrid Carl­berg; Ebba Segerberg, trans.; Kofi A. Annan, intro.
  • Review
By – April 12, 2016

With over a dozen books about Raoul Wal­len­berg on the mar­ket, this par­tic­u­lar vol­ume is dis­tin­guished by the depth of Ingrid Carlberg’s research as well as her insights into Swedish polit­i­cal cul­ture. Carl­berg, her­self a Swedish jour­nal­ist, exam­ined Swedish, Hun­gar­i­an, Amer­i­can, and Russ­ian offi­cial archives, went through count­less col­lec­tions of per­son­al papers, and then con­duct­ed some six­ty inter­views with key wit­ness­es in order to pre­pare this lengthy biog­ra­phy. What emerges is a full por­trait of Raoul Wal­len­berg — his upbring­ing by his wid­owed moth­er; his tough­en­ing” by fam­i­ly elders; his strug­gle to be his own per­son; and, final­ly, his life’s work as a human­i­tar­i­an, sav­ing thou­sands of Jews in Hun­gary dur­ing the Holocaust. 

Research­ing Wallenberg’s Swedish years may have been straight­for­ward, but piec­ing togeth­er an account of his clan­des­tine work in Hun­gary was not. Who was keep­ing track of the finan­cial trans­ac­tions he devised to stock­pile food for his Swedish” Jews? Who was record­ing the just-in-time bribes he came up with in order to save a few more lives? From the pro­tec­tive Swedish pass­ports” he devised, to his eleventh-hour vis­its to save besieged safe hous­es, to his nego­ti­at­ing ses­sions with Nazi offi­cials, most of Wallenberg’s war work was off the record. It is all the more impres­sive that Carlberg’s account is so full and pre­cise when one con­sid­ers how painstak­ing­ly it was assem­bled. To break up the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, Carl­berg has occa­sion­al­ly insert­ed per­son­al accounts of her own attempts to revis­it Wallenberg’s peo­ple or places. Since these for­ays were most­ly fruit­less, they do not offer much emo­tion­al relief, but some read­ers may appre­ci­ate the respite they pro­vide from Wallenberg’s own increas­ing­ly painful story. 

In the last sec­tion of the book, after Wallenberg’s dis­ap­pear­ance” has been orches­trat­ed by the Sovi­ets, Carlberg’s focus nec­es­sar­i­ly shifts from Wal­len­berg him­self to the diplo­mat­ic stand-offs over his fate: Sweden’s ini­tial reluc­tance to press the Sovi­et Union for answers, the stonewalling by var­i­ous Sovi­et offi­cials, and moments of unex­pect­ed can­dor. Read­ing this thor­ough account of such an out­stand­ing man, it is hard not to hope for a dif­fer­ent — hap­pi­er — end­ing, but, like his par­ents and sib­lings, we must set­tle for sim­ply know­ing a bit more about his life.

Relat­ed Content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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