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.
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.