Earlier this week, Alan Lelchuk wrote about meeting Daniel Pagliansky, Wallenberg's KGB interrogator. Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties, Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.
Traveling to various destination and sites, meeting participants and witnesses, searching archives, led me to get a feel of the different cultures, and fill in the puzzle of R. Wallenberg. In Stockholm for example, I experienced the world of the proud if icy Swedes, a conservative, private people. And I felt the elegance of their orderly town, the wonderful mahogany interiors (of restaurants, municipal buildings), the curved city library, and the narrow cobblestone streets. I could see where Wallenberg had sketched some of his future architectural plans and his interest in developing the quay area. Importantly, I met in the Lindingo suburb home of a friend, a seventyish gentleman who had been in the Officer Training Corps with the young Wallenberg, who told me a story which contributed significantly to my understanding of my protagonist. When they were together in the north of Sweden for their officer camp training, the Commanding Officer disciplined a young soldier for some violation of rules, demeaning him in front of the group of twenty. When he did this, another young officer stepped forward, identified himself (Raoul Wallenberg), and said he objected to the humiliation of his fellow trainee, calling it “unprofessional.” The officer in charge was shocked at this breach of authority, stared at the young rebel, and decided to pull back from his severe punishment. “Everyone of us saw what sort of man this young officer was, not afraid of authority,” my old witness said, and how this RW was, brave, unorthodox, fearless. The small group of young officers was impressed. And for me, that characteristic of the youthful Wallenberg never left my sights as I was composing my character.
At the elegant Stockholm Municipal Building where I went to search for archive files of interest, I was given three CD’s—Raoul Wallenberg, 1945-70, Dossier P2 Eu—by the efficient archivist. These were innocuous enough documents of diplomatic notes, etc. But when I sought the more revealing and more relevant diplomatic notes between the Government of Sweden and the Soviet Union, and those between the Foreign Ambassador of Sweden and his counterparts in SU, during those crucial years of 1945-47, I was told they were off-limits still, some fifty-five years after the events. The cordial archivist shook his head, smiled sympathetically and offered, “I know, I know. One day perhaps….” So I understood that beneath the order, the elegance and the courtesy, there lurked shadows and secrets that were waiting to be disclosed if unearthed. In other words, something was rotten in the state of Sweden.
In Moscow I tried hard to get inside the intricate understanding and deep vaults of the KGB—if you walked in front of the massive concrete block named Lybianka Prison, you would get a sense of the notorious fortress, the Stalinist architecture. From my KGB guide Nikita Petrov I learned about its deepest kept secrets, wherein the real file of the Russians and Wallenberg was probably locked away securely—in the cavernous basement of the KGB archives. A basement infamous for the darkest truths and secrets buried down there, guarded so tightly that hardly any of the high agents of the current FSB or government officials were allowed down there. “Once you enter this Service,” Nikita told me, “you never leave, meaning you never tell your secrets while you live—and if you attempt to, you don’t live—or even after you die.” (Actually, before the Putin era, certain escapees did tell their tales.) And so I was back to a Secret Society again, one that I had encountered in Stockholm; by now I was expanding my naïve education in recent European Cold War history, how much of it was locked away, guarded carefully, for reasons of disclosure which could destroy reputations and persons of authority, and reveal more evil.
In Budapest, sitting at a small table in Vorosmarty Square, I was introduced to Georges L., a hefty fellow of seventy-five, and, over rich Gerbaud coffee, I heard his story. His parents had been taken away to Auschwitz, he was a boy alone, homeless, and Wallenberg found him wandering, and saved him. He hired him to do small errands, and found him places to sleep at night. “He was a Mashiach, and people came around if they heard Mr Wallenberg was there, at some place, just to see him, even touch him. He never turned any Jew away, old or young, crazy or poor. Look at me today, I am alive because of him!” He shook his head, shed tears. “Sometimes I see him at night, just before sleep, and he appears like a living ghost “
So that was the way the Jews viewed Raoul, like the true living messiah.
Could I reproduce some of that transformation in my novel, I wondered, sitting in that square filled with sunshine and people, clouded over by hovering memories.
Alan Lelchuk's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions,The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.