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In Russia, A Small Ceremony Marks Centenary Of Holocaust Hero Wallenberg

  • Tom Balmforth

Ilya Altman, a founder of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center and organizer of the ceremony marking 100 years since Raoul Wallenberg's birth, called on the authorities to name a street after Wallenberg.

Ilya Altman, a founder of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center and organizer of the ceremony marking 100 years since Raoul Wallenberg's birth, called on the authorities to name a street after Wallenberg.

MOSCOW -- This weekend, much of the world will mark the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg.

Various events honoring the World War II Swedish diplomat, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust before disappearing into Soviet custody, will be held in Israel, Hungary, and elsewhere. In Sweden, Crown Princess Victoria will be among the dignitaries attending a ceremony near Stockholm on August 4.

Ahead of the anniversary, the U.S. Congress posthumously honored the diplomat with the Congressional Gold Medal and President Barack Obama signed the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Act.

In Russia, the anniversary is a more low-key affair. On August 3, a small group of about 50 people -- including members of the Jewish community, historians, and rights workers -- gathered for a somber commemorative ceremony in Moscow's Memorial Synagogue at the Holocaust and Jewish Heritage Museum.

Diplomats from Sweden, Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany and Israel were among those who spoke in memory of Wallenberg. A new documentary film on the secret services was shown

There was no official Russian representation.

Prior to the ceremony, Alla Gerber, a member of Russia's Public Chamber who spoke at the ceremony -- which she attended in a private capacity, told RFE/RL: " I get the impression that [Russian officials] are a little fed up with this issue. They think that it is finished. For us it isn't finished."

The event's organizer, Ilya Altman, a historian and founder of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center, said he regretted the fact that Wallenberg gets so little attention in Russia.

"It is our misfortune that to this day we know so little of what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, that to this day there is no street in Moscow named after Raoul Wallenberg and that his name does not feature on today's school curriculum," Altman said.

Saved Thousands Of Hungarian Jews

As Sweden's envoy to Hungary during the war, Wallenberg, according to various estimates, prevented the deportation of at least 20,000 and as many as 100,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. The diplomat, who was 32 at the time, saved Jews by issuing them protective passports issued by the Swedish government.

Raoul Wallenberg in 1944

Raoul Wallenberg in 1944

Wallenberg also talked occupying German officers out of a plan to obliterate Budapest's Jewish ghetto. According to various estimates, the Nazis killed between 450,000 and 550,000 Hungarian Jews.

When the Red Army occupied Hungary at the end of World War II, Soviet intelligence agents abducted the Swedish diplomat. The Soviet Union claimed that Wallenberg, who was incarcerated at Moscow's Lefortovo prison, died on July 17, 1947, of a heart attack. There have long been suspicions that he was in fact executed.

His fate remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II.

A Swedish-Russian commission conducted an investigation throughout the 1990s, but disbanded in 2001. It was able only to agree that the case cannot be closed because there are so many inconsistencies.

Is Russia Hiding Something?

A breakthrough appeared to come in November 2009 when Russian authorities told an independent research team that Wallenberg was "in great likelihood" a man identified by the security services simply as "Prisoner No. 7."

The documents indicated that Prisoner No 7 was interrogated on July 23, 1947 -- six days after the Swedish diplomat's reported death.

Susanne Berger, German historian based in the United States who has researched the Wallenberg case extensively, was part of the research team making that discovery. She says it's clear that the Russian authorities have not made all pertinent documents available.

"There has been progress rather in the sense that it is becoming more and more evident that important documentation directly relating to the Wallenberg case is still available in Russian archives that was not made available to the Swedish-Russian working group," Berger says.

Likewise, Nikita Petrov of the Moscow-based Memorial human rights organization, says that Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet Union's KGB, has obstructed the investigation.

"The most important thing we can conclude from all of this [evidence and the contradictions] is that Wallenberg was physically eliminated, that is, consciously murdered and that to this day Moscow is hiding this fact," Petrov says.
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at


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