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.

Relat­ed Content:

Alan Lelchuk is a nov­el­ist and pro­fes­sor who was born and grew up in Brook­lyn, NY. He received his BA in World Lit­er­a­ture from Brook­lyn Col­lege in 1960 and stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege, Lon­don in 1962 – 63, receiv­ing his MA in 1963 and PhD in 1965, both in Eng­lish from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. He is a co-founder of Steer­forth Press, has taught at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty and Amherst Col­lege, and since 1985 has been on the fac­ul­ty of Dart­mouth College.