Will Little Signs Add Up to a Real Soviet Thaw on the Wallenberg Case?

William Korey, director of international policy research for B'nai B'rith, is on a Ford Foundation grant studying American policy and the Helsinki process.

An untold chapter in the recently concluded Helsinki accord talks in Vienna offers the possibility of a positive outcome to the Raoul Wallenberg case. Especially intriguing--and encouraging--were comments made there by the chief of the Soviet delegation, Ambassador Yuri B. Kashlev, who also heads the human-rights bureau of the Soviet foreign ministry.

From time to time, the Wallenberg issue had surfaced in human-rights speeches at the Vienna sessions, but last September, during a closed plenary session, it burst forth in a pointed and dramatic form. Wallenberg himself would have been surprised by the outcome of the discussion.

Ambassador Warren Zimmermann, chief of the U.S. delegation, sparked the plenary debate with favorable references to unprecedented developments in the Soviet Union concerning its history. He noted that the notorious falsifications and cover-ups in history books are now being exposed and corrected. "Blank pages" are being filled in.

A survey of the basic facts of the Wallenberg case followed: How the Swedish aristocrat and diplomat, only 32 years old, had saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest from the death camps during 1944. And how Wallenberg suddenly disappeared in January, 1945, while he was on his way to visit the Soviet commander in Hungary. His aim was to outline to the high Soviet officer a relief plan for Hungarian Jewish survivors.

Precisely what happened at this point no one knows. Conflicting statements by Soviet authorities to inquiring Swedish officials marked the subsequent decade. Finally, in February, 1957, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko provided the Swedish ambassador in Moscow with official information in an aide-memoire.

According to Gromyko, a document dated July, 1947, and written by a Soviet military doctor in Lubyanka Prison to the minister of state security, reported that a prisoner named Wallenberg had just died and that he would be cremated.

The aide-memoire added that the doctor had since died and the minister of state security had been shot as an anti-Soviet criminal.

Clearly, Moscow's intention was to suppress all appropriate details and to plunge Wallenberg down history's "memory hole." Notwithstanding that, numerous reports in subsequent years would refer to Wallenberg being seen in various places in the Soviet gulag . (A report in Sweden as late as August, 1988, claimed that he had been seen in December, 1986, at a Soviet prison hospital near the Chinese border.)

Ambassador Zimmermann put the troubling historical and personal question to the Vienna plenary last September. Why was Wallenberg arrested? What was his fate? Is he alive or dead? He called for "a full and open accounting of that part of Soviet history affecting a man who stood for so many of the ideals to which we are dedicated."

The Canadian and British ambassadors quickly joined in the appeal to Moscow for information about Wallenberg. Far more significant was the fact that the United States was also joined by the chief of the Hungarian delegation to the Vienna talks, Andre Erdos. After describing Wallenberg as a hero who was prepared to sacrifice himself for his fellow man, Erdos said: "We would welcome with great emotion any new information which would shed light on his fate or complete our knowledge."

It was the first time that an official from communist Hungary dared to raise questions in an international plenary meeting about Wallenberg. Clearly, a gauntlet challenging Moscow's intentions had been courageously dropped. (Hungary, of course, had permitted the construction of an impressive monument to the Swedish diplomat. But this constituted no challenge to Soviet integrity.)

The denouement of the Vienna debate was even more intriguing than the Hungarian intervention. In response to the sharp queries in the closed plenary, Ambassador Kashlev said that the Soviet Union was aware of the "noble activities" of Raoul Wallenberg.

If Kashlev stunned his listeners with unprecedented laudatory comments about Wallenberg, he also made a firm commitment, presumably on behalf of Moscow: As the stains of Soviet history are cleared up, he promised, if anything is discovered in the process about Wallenberg, the information would be made public.

So far, Moscow authorities have been silent about the Wallenberg case, but an unusual episode in Belgium is most encouraging. On Jan. 19, the day the Helsinki talks ended in Vienna, Belgian Foreign Minister Leo Tindemans joined the Belgian Committee for Raoul Wallenberg in a special ceremony at Brussels' Egmont Palace honoring the Swedish hero-diplomat. Moscow's Ambassador Petr Bogdanov showed up for the solemn event.

For the first time anywhere, a Soviet official had participated in a Wallenberg ceremony. It did not go unnoticed.

Wallenberg's half-brother, Guy von Dardel, told the Brussels gathering that "the presence of the Soviet Ambassador is a significant gesture that . . . gives us hope for a change of the Soviet attitude toward the Wallenberg case."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°