Raoul Wallenberg

Q&A with Ingrid Carlberg on Raoul Wallenberg

Posted on: 23/02/2016 with tags: ingrid carlberg, Q&A, raoul wallenberg, WW2

How did you first find out about Raoul Wallenberg?

If, like me, you were born and raised in Sweden, you would of course know the name Raoul Wallenberg. But for me, growing up in the 70’s, his name was for a long time primarily linked to an eternal political and diplomatic struggle between Sweden and the Soviet Union. Which meant that his name was linked to something grown up people were tired of hearing about: ‘stop going on about Raoul Wallenberg, it won’t change anything, everybody knows that he is dead’. It was a while before I learned any details about his deeds during World War II, about his heroic actions to save the persecuted Hungarian Jews in Budapest in the second half of 1944. In Sweden it was a very long time before his courageous work was appraised. We are not a country where anyone can be easily raised to heroic dimensions. There are still more schools, squares and streets named after Raoul Wallenberg in the United States than there are in Sweden. One of the reasons I decided to write the book was in fact this astonishing Swedish silence around both what he did in Budapest, and the many diplomatic failures and misjudgments that sealed his fate. As you might know, after having completed a huge mission to save thousands of Hungarian Jews in Budapest, he voluntarily sought contact with the approaching Soviet Army in January 1945. They answered by arresting him and taking him to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. He never saw his home country again.

His life seems to be similar to that of Oskar Schindler, why do you think not as many people have heard his story around the world?

Maybe because Steven Spielberg chose to make a film about Schindler and not Wallenberg … I do admire Oskar Schindler, but to be honest, I think Raoul Wallenberg’s actions and his destiny is a much more thrilling and interesting story.

How did you set about compiling his story? Was it through personal letters, archives etc? Were you able to talk to people who knew him?

There have been books written about Raoul Wallenberg before, though primarily by foreign authors. When I started to write, I realised that there were actually more American books about Raoul Wallenberg than Swedish ones. One other thing I noticed was that no one had really done the basic research, digging in all the archives, interviewing all the people. I wanted to write a really good narrative, a captivating story where the reader got to know him personally, to really feel and see the surroundings, to understand the contemporary challenges he faced. But my tool was to write that story based only on facts. So the book is to a great extent the result of a huge amount of archival research, in many countries (Sweden, Hungary, Germany, Russia, USA), in official as well as private archives. I have also taken great care to meet all relevant people and have been lucky enough to interview quite a few who were close to him, before they passed away.

What was the most difficult part of your research?

Trying to get into the archives of the Russian security service, the FSB (previously the KGB), beyond any comparison. Actually, in the end, I did not manage it, although I was close. After a huge amount of work, I was promised that I could see some of the original documents that I had listed. I booked a trip to Moscow for that reason alone. When I arrived at the reading room of the FSB Archive, the permission had been changed from some authority above. They no longer had any intention of showing me all those documents. BUT on the coffee table where we had our meeting in 2011, the chief of the FSB Archives and I, I suddenly noticed a small, faded piece of cardboard – say the size of a small envelope. I was shocked when I understood what it was that they had placed there, just beside the coffee cups. It was Raoul Wallenberg’s original prison card. I asked and was granted permission to hold it. In that moment, I had goosebumps all over me.

But emotionally, the hardest part to write was the third part of the book, where I follow his tragic destiny after the arrest. His poor family suffered so much, lurching between hope and despair for decades without ever reaching either his release, nor any credible explanation of what had happened to him. I was in tears several times whilst writing that part.

What do you admire most about him?

That he was another kind of hero altogether, not just some Superman carrying out brave deeds on his own, as he is often described. This happened, but what made me really admire him was the incredible energy he put into the mission in Budapest, the bureaucracy, the remarkable organisation. That was what made the difference. He had 350 people employed by the end of 1944. He and his closest collaborators, who were all Hungarian Jews who had gotten Swedish protective papers, made this organisation function as a well-organised company. It was magic, under those terrible, anarchic, circumstances, where people were killed in the streets, and marched off on foot to a certain death.

Author: Ingrid Carlberg

Ingrid Carlberg is a Swedish author and journalist. Her book about the life and destiny of Raoul Wallenberg was awarded the August Prize for best work of non-fiction 2012. Her biography was also awarded the Swedish Academy's Axel Hirsch Prize in 2013. Ingrid Carlberg worked at the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter from 1990 to 2010, specializing in investigative and narrative journalism.

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