Posts Tagged ‘Raoul Wallenberg’

Swedish author Jangfeldt: Russia must deal with its past to face its future.

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Biographer Bengt

Bengt Jangfeldt – the eminent Swedish author of recent books on Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, World War II Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky – talks to Russia about Russians in a great interview for Novaya Gazeta a week ago here. We’ve written about Bengt before here and here and here. The only problem is: the new interview is in Russian. With trepidation, I offer a translation of a few excerpts below:


“Friendship with China – it’s perfect for Russia, but … this is not the past of Russian culture nor its future. Russia and the West have  interconnected cultural values. This relationship is inevitable.”


jangfeldt“Russia, unlike in Germany, did not deal with its past. Wallenberg is just one of the many victims of the Stalinist terror and the Soviet regime. To understand this fact today is not very easy: the archives are still not readily available, and because of this, these books are always relevant. I think that Russia will have difficulty moving forward without such proceedings. It’s like a stone that pulls downward. For example, the recent history with ‘Memorial’ suggests that this problem still affects the life of the country.”


“I once had a conversation with Brodsky about Russia, we often talked about it. It was in the 90s. And Brodsky made the following statement: ‘Do not underestimate the inferiority complex of my former fellow citizens.'”



He took the bait.

Jangfeldt: “To take one striking example of his [Mayakovsky’s] life, when he changed his attitude to the Soviet regime and the Soviet regime to him. It happened in the winter of 1922, when Lenin said of his poem ‘Prozasedavshiesya’: ‘As for poetry, I do not know, but from a political point of view, it’s good’ – and Mayakovsky was very happy. It would be impossible for us. If someone said to me: ‘You know, the Prime Minister is very fond of your book, and so now we are going to print large runs of it’ – that would be terrible!

Inteviewer: Why is that awful?

Jangfeldt: Because he should not play any role either in my life or in the life of the publisher.”


Read the rest – either in Russian or with Google Translate – here. (And a hat tip to Andrius Katilius for the article.)

Surviving the Holocaust: One man remembers Raoul Wallenberg’s safe house

Monday, October 28th, 2013
PS portrait

The face of a survivor

During Bengt Jangfeldt‘s presentation on Raoul Wallenberg last week , one man in the audience asked a question about the Holocaust hero’s safe houses in Budapest, where Jews were protected from deportation and almost certain death.  His interest was personal: he had been a child in one of them.  When the Book Haven asked him to write a little about his experiences, Peter Stangl, who has written an unpublished memoir, gave us more than we had hoped for.

Stangl is director emeritus of Stanford Medical Center’s Lane Library. He was born in Budapest on December 19, 1936.  His father was a businessman, his mother a graphic artist and illustrator.  His mother perished in the Holocaust, probably at Dachau.  The boy, however, was hidden by nuns, then took shelter with his father in a Wallenberg safe house in the Budapest ghetto.  After the war, he graduated from high school in Communist Hungary in 1955.  He signed up for a lathe mechanic apprentice program after high school to avoid the draft, but was a few months shy of finishing the program when the 1956 October uprising broke out.  He escaped to Vienna with a school buddy and then emigrated to the U.S., arriving in December 1956.

He received a scholarship to go to Yale, where he received a B.A. in Russian Area studies in 1962.  He studied linguistics at the Sorbonne and Yale School of Graduate Studies, 1963-64.  He received an M.S. in Library Science, Southern Connecticut State College, 1968. He worked at the Yale University library system 1964-71, and became director of Lane Library, 1971 -1996. 

Here’s a shard of his Holocaust memories:

In 1944, I was seven years old.  That was the year of mass deportation of Jews from Budapest.  My father was among the first, being an able-bodied man in his forties.  Young Nazi soldiers came to the house to take him away and he was taken to work camp.   Within hours he was back, having escaped from the train station where they were loaded onto trains.  He knew he would be rearrested shortly, so he gave hurried instructions to my mother to stay put, not to respond to calls of reporting for deportation.  He kept repeating that he would be back, no matter where he would be taken, and that he would take care of everyone and everything.

stangl2And sure enough, the soldiers were back and took him away again.  Posters appeared all over the city announcing times and gathering places for Jews, by age and gender, to report for registration – meaning to be transported to concentration camps.  This is what my father was talking about.  But my mother was too scared not to report, and she went.

My father escaped again and came home (altogether he escaped seven times) and was furious with my grandmother for letting mother go.  He made arrangements for me to go to a half-finished house on the edge of the city, where two nuns were hiding about a dozen jewish children and trying to keep us safe. I stayed there for some weeks, until my father – back again – sent for me. Dad explained that we were going to move to a new place where we will be safe, thanks to a very good man named Wallenberg. We walked a short distance and entered a big apartment house with the emblem of the Swedish Embassy by the gate.

Most of this period is a jumble in my mind. The building was teaming with people, five or six persons to a room.  Food was scarce; I remember the constant feeling of hunger and stomach aches.  I know from accounts that I was quite sick there: I had a severe case of multiple vitamin deficiencies.

A notable episode, still painful in its memory, is worth retelling here. One day, as my father called me, I could tell from the tone of his voice that there was something special.  “Listen carefully,” he said. “Through an old friend I managed to get a little cocoa powder and dried milk.  Grandmother will fix you a cup.”

“Really??” I could hardly believe it. “Now?

“Yes, in just a minute.  You know the nice lady two floors down, who always wears that red robe?”

I knew.  I didn’t like her.  She had false teeth that always seemed like they were about to fall out.  She scared me when she smiled at me.

Budapest, Festnahme von Juden

Jewish women in Budapest, October 1944 (Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

He continued, “I want you to go downstairs to her.  Be very polite, and tell her that your Daddy sent you.  She will give you some saccharine.  She is diabetic, you know?  Since there is no sugar, we will use that in your cocoa.”

“Thanks, Dad, can I go now?” I asked breathlessly.

“Yes, go.  Just one other thing — don’t say anything about this to any of the other kids, they would only feel jealous or envious.  You don’t have to share it, you are sick.”

I was enormously thrilled, and flew down the stairs, two steps at a time.  The lady was very nice.  She knew about the cocoa.  She told me to wait a moment while she went inside to get her saccharin.  I held out my hand and she dropped the tiny pill, just a little bigger than the head of a pin, into it.  I held it tight, said thank you, and was gone.  The smell of the cocoa, as I reached the door upstairs, was almost unbearable.  I went racing through the hallway to Grandmother, just as she was pouring the cocoa into a cup.  I opened my tight fist to drop the little tablet on the table — nothing.  It wasn’t there.  I felt like lightning had struck me.  I stared at my empty hand and started to cry.  My father went crawling down the stairs, looking everywhere, finding nothing.

After a long time and with much cajoling from Grandmother, I stopped crying long enough to taste the cocoa. It was bitter, very, very bitter.  I cried some more. . .


Raoul Wallenberg: quick-witted heroism and the long silence afterward

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Jangfeldt’s biography of Wallenberg will be out next year. (Photo: Steve Gladfelter)

Bengt Jangfeldt  hesitates over the word “hero”: “I don’t particularly like to use it, it’s a cliché, but he was a hero,” he finally said. At any rate, the Swedish author won’t be able to duck the word now. The Hero of Budapest is the title of the forthcoming English edition of his biography on Raoul Wallenberg, the man who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Hungarian Holocaust.  The book should be available in February 2014.


Hungarian Jews arriving at Birkenau, 1944

He spoke about Wallenberg at a late-afternoon event in Stauffer Auditorium at Hoover last Wednesday.  In particular, he discussed “Swedish passivity” in responding to Wallenberg’s disappearance.

Wallenberg grew up in a wealthy banking family – akin to the Rothschilds and Rockefellers in reputation and wealth.  His 23-year-old father, a naval officer, died of cancer before Wallenberg was born in 1912, and the boy was raised by his mother and a grandfather, diplomat Gustaf Wallenberg, who was as adventurous as young Raoul.

He studied in Paris and then, of all places, my own alma mater, the University of Michigan (we’ve written about that before, here) – his grandfather wanted him to attend a public university, somewhere in the heartland of America.  Ann Arbor was the ticket.  He took a degree in the university’s new architecture program.  He also fit in time to hitchhike, drive, and bus around the country, venturing as far as Mexico.  His grandfather told him it was the “best away to learn – never use your name, and never show off.”


Wallenberg in Swedish uniform

After graduation in 1935, Wallenberg took brief jobs in South Africa and Haifa, and then the footloose Swede began working for a Hungarian Jew in a import-export business in Stockholm. His boss was also part of an effort, backed by the Americans, to rescue the Hungarian Jews.  Wallenberg was itching to travel to Budapest under diplomatic cover and lead the rescue operation.  “It was a chance to prove to his banking family he was worthy of something.  He was a loquacious, funny guy,” Jangfeldt said, “not good for banking boards, but he impressed the Americans.” He got the job.

“The Germans were increasingly dissatisfied with Hungary,” Jangfeldt said, as the Hungarians resisted their ally’s Final Solution. German tanks rolled into Budapest in March 1944 and, with the support of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party, the atrocities resumed, continuing furiously even after the Soviets crossed the border a few months later.  Winston Churchill wrote on July 11, 1944, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

Wallenberg arrived in July 1944, just as the massive deportations of over 400,000 Jews to death camps had, briefly, hit the “pause” button, soon to resume.

In Budapest, Wallenberg’s office was situated in the same building as the American Embassy. Wallenberg was daring and inventive in his efforts to save the Jews who remained, about 200-250,000 of them.

He began issuing provisional passports to any Jews who had a connection to Sweden, through business or family ties.  “Suddenly, many people had ties to Sweden,” Jangfeldt said. Wallenberg, who was proud of being 1/16th Jew, recorded them all in his “Book of Life.” He may have saved as many as 8,000 Jews from deportation, but Jangfeldt emphasized that he saved many more in other ways.  He provided food for the Ghetto inhabitants – “there was always food for the tens of thousands of people.”  He ran networks that helped others escape or find shelter.  He began a Swedish hospital in his private flat.  He housed about ten thousand Jews in more than thirty extraterritorial buildings that he rented.  (A denizen from one of the safe houses was in the audience at Hoover – more on that tomorrow.)

1389.9 Holocaust B

Passport photo

Using Russian and Swedish archival sources previously not available, Jangfeldt has been able to reconstruct Wallenberg’s eventual capture and death.  In January 1945, Wallenberg tried to meet with the Soviet leaders on the Ukrainian front, urging them not to bomb the Jewish ghetto. Wallenberg’s Russian would have been fluent – “I know he went to my high school, and I had lots of Russian,” Bengfeldt said.  It was a bad move on Wallenberg’s part.

“It’s something of an enigma why he was arrested,” Bengfeldt said. Abducting a diplomat is a violation of international law. Wallenberg was, ironically, accused of spying, or otherwise working for the Germans.  Perhaps it’s not entirely a surprise; Wallenberg regularly met with top Nazi leaders, including Eichmann, and their names were in his confiscated possessions. Altruism?  The Soviets simply didn’t believe it, and they didn’t believe the story about saving Jews.  “From a Russian point of view, it must have been suspicious to see someone coming voluntarily to them with the story of saving Jews.”

Jangfeldt’s research revealed a startling fact: Wallenberg had at least 15 kilograms of gold and jewelry in his car when the Red Army arrested him in 1945. Again, why?  Jangfeldt suggests that this was the amassed fortune of many of the Jewish victims Wallenberg had helped, who had left their valuables with him for safekeeping. He wished to return them at the war’s end to help them rebuild their lives. It seems like a reckless risk, but perhaps he had gotten away with so much, so often, that he had begun to feel invulnerable.  In any case, the decision may have been the fatal one.

jangfeldtIn April 1945, Averell Harriman, acting on behalf of the U.S. State Department, offered the Swedish government American help in making inquiries about Wallenberg’s fate. His offer was declined.  Jangfeldt called this “a symbol of Swedish passivity.”  The Swedes persuaded themselves that Wallenberg had been killed in Hungary – “the assumption that he had been killed in Budapest was very cynical,” Jangfeldt said. We now know he was taken to the Soviet Union’s notorious prisons, Lefortovo and later the Lubyanka.

The Soviet foreign service reassured the Swedes that they had conducted an investigation, and that they knew of no one named Wallenberg in the Soviet prison system.  In a sense, it may have been true. Soviet security forces operated as a state within a state, and it’s more than possible they kept secrets from their own diplomats. In fact, Wallenberg was jailed within 500 meters from the Kremlin.  Throughout 1945 and 1946, Bengfeldt said that very little was done on the Swedish side – with a jaw-dropping inaction also from the banking side of the Wallenberg family, which had the power and influence to make mountains move.

Why did the Swedes turn their backs?  Jangfeldt notes that a trade agreement was being negotiated between the Soviets and Sweden in March 1946.  “It’s not impossible that Sweden wanted to get Wallenberg off the table for economic reasons.”  Cynical?  “Fifty years makes one cynical,” Jangfeldt said.  Well, it’s been more than that now. One potential source of help was long gone. Gustaf Wallenberg had died in 1937 – “if he had lived, things would have been different.”

Though it’s commonly accepted that Wallenberg died in 1947, rumors and purported sightings continued into the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s.  In 1989, “all of a sudden the Wallenberg belongings, from when he was arrested, had fallen off a shelf”; his address book, calendar, car registration, cigarette case, diplomatic passport and stacks of old money in a variety of currencies were returned to Wallenberg’s immediate family. His mother, stepfather, and two half-siblings never gave up hope of finding him alive.  The Yeltsin era brought more transparency – access to archives and interviews – but no definitive answers. The question remains: “Wallenberg never returned home and we ask ‘Why?'”

A spiritual kind of Olympics: Raoul Wallenberg in America

Saturday, July 28th, 2012


I seem to be the only person not watching the Olympics today.  So maybe it might be timely to remind everyone of a more spiritual kind of Olympics.  Spoiler: Raoul Wallenberg won.

Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who saved perhaps as many as 100,000 Jewish lives in Hungary during World War II. After the Soviets entered Budapest in 1945, he was last seen for certain going off with a Russian officer for a “meeting.” The Nazis didn’t get him, but apparently the Soviets did.  Does he get a gold cup or medal?

I must have known, at some point, that Wallenberg was an alumnus of my alma mater, but I had certainly forgotten it by the time I received this emailed reminder from Michigan Today.

The Swedish government has created a traveling exhibition, “To Me There’s No Other Choice,” which will arrive at the University of Michigan in February 2013 – and it will feature a good chunk on his time in Ann Arbor.  Why did Wallenberg “Go Blue”?  Although he was born to a prominent family of bankers, diplomats, military officers, and industrialists –  the “Rockefellers of Scandinavia” – “The choice of a university was hardly automatic to his grandfather who wished Raoul to study abroad and who, [according to an earlier article] ‘disliked the snobbery of the British upper classes and ruled out Oxford and Cambridge.’ He apparently felt the same way about America’s Ivy League schools,” according to Sheryl James‘s article.

The choice suited: “When I now look back upon the last school year, I find I have had a completely wonderful time,” he wrote before he graduated with a degree in architecture in less than four years. Also according to the article:  “A former classmate later said Wallenberg declined to join a fraternity, though he could have afforded it, because it would isolate him from other, less prosperous students. ‘There was just no snobbery about him,’ his classmate recalled.”

A Michigan hitchhiker

Too often martyrdom blots out an earlier life that was lived to the fullest. Wallenberg was someone who enjoyed his brief years.  According to an earlier university article that James cites: “‘He dressed in sneakers, ate hot dogs, and hitchhiked wherever he went … It is evident he was popular, energetic, and outgoing, endearing himself by his humor and unassuming ways.’ Classmates nicknamed him Rudy and remembered him as gentle and intelligent.”

He worked at odd jobs and, on his vacations, hitchhiked around America.  He wrote to his grandfather: “When you travel like a hobo, everything’s different. You have to be on the alert the whole time. You’re in close contact with new people every day. Hitchhiking gives you training in diplomacy and tact.”

One of his professors recalled, “He had no fear—that’s my impression of him … I can understand why he took the job in Budapest.”  James writes:  “The Hungarian Jewish population was the only one of any size left in 1944 Europe when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the U.S. War Refugee Board (WRB) to help save victims of the Nazi and Axis powers. The WRB sought aid from a neutral Sweden—and Raoul Wallenberg, just 32 years old and already connected in Budapest, agreed to lead the Swedish effort.

I disagree with James on this score, I do not think it would have been “selfish, thoughtless, superficial” had he chosen to stay in Ann Arbor and live a normal life raising a family and making use of one’s talents.  In fact, as one who is Detroit-born, I can say that living in Michigan requires a courage of its own, though perhaps not for a Swede:

“I have spent this entire Christmas in Ann Arbor, as I had quite a lot to do,” he wrote to his grandfather in 1935. “However, I haven’t bored myself at all. We have been having fine weather, snow most of the time and a few days of quite severe cold. One morning something peculiar happened. Due to changes of temperature, I presume, the street pavements, lawns, and even tree trunks were coated with a layer of perfectly clear ice almost an inch thick. It looked very strange and very beautiful.”

I am glad to be liberated from the Michigan winter – I understand that it’s actually colder than Moscow – and under the relentlessly sunny skies of California.

Read the whole thing here.