Accessibility links

Breaking News

Interview: Historian Susanne Berger On The Fate Of Raoul Wallenberg

The fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg has remained a mystery for decades.
The fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg has remained a mystery for decades.
Susanne Berger, a U.S.-based German historian has done extensive research on the case of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps during World War II before disappearing while in Soviet custody. His fate remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II. Berger was a consultant to a Swedish-Russian commission investigating Wallenberg's fate until it disbanded in 2001. She was also part of a research team that uncovered new facts about the case in 2009. RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth spoke to Berger about what we know -- and still do not know -- about Wallenberg's fate.

RFE/RL: In November 2009, information released from state archives appeared to show that Raoul Wallenberg was very probably interrogated by the KGB on July 23, 1947 -- six days after the date the Soviets claimed he died. Has there been any progress in the investigation since then?

Susanne Berger: There has been progress in the sense that it is becoming more and more evident that important documentation directly related to the Raoul Wallenberg case is still available in Russian archives which was not made available to the Swedish-Russian working group [which investigated the case in the 1990s until it was disbanded in 2001].

For instance, we have now learned that the investigative material for Wallenberg's cellmate Willy Rodel did indeed survive in large parts. We were not aware of that during the time of the working group.

Similarly, the Russian Foreign Ministry archives have recently released important telegrams from correspondence between the Soviet Embassy in Stockholm and the Russian Foreign Ministry. These were not available.

These [materials] include important information in the case and so basically, what we know is that there is plenty of documentation that we have not seen, that has been censored. Until we have had complete access to this material, we really cannot draw any final conclusions about the case.

RFE/RL: Do you think the Russian authorities are obstructing the investigation by not releasing archived material?

Berger: The problem is that there is obviously this core debate: does Russia know the truth? Or, who in Russia knows the truth? Or, can the case be solved?

Now, clearly some archivists are entirely truthful when they say we don't see any further documentation, we don't have any information about Raoul Wallenberg's fate.

The problem is that they have not allowed researchers to study documentation that is crucial in the original, in an uncensored form, in the context of the original files. All of this has to happen.

We have not seen very important information from intelligence reporting from Budapest and Stockholm from the 1940s, etc. Until we have had a chance to examine this documentation, it really cannot be said that everything has been seen and everything has been done.

There are large parts of research that have not occurred and that must be carried out. This is a problem. Does Russia know the truth? What I would say is there is definitely more information and researchers have to be allowed to review this and then we can make an assessment.

RFE/RL: In November 2009, Russian authorities revealed information to a research group you were involved with that suggested Wallenberg died later than the Kremlin officially said. If the Russian government is not cooperating, what was the motivation for releasing this information?

Berger: It's very difficult to say, but you have to see it in the context of how this information was released. We had asked questions about these particular interrogation registers from Lubyanka for those dates.

On those dates, July 22 and 23 [1947], a large number of prisoners with direct contact or a role in the Wallenberg case were all interrogated and subsequently isolated for many years so something decisive happened on that day, or on these two days.

However, we have never been given the full list of the people interrogated on that day. That is what we asked for -- please give us uncensored copies of this interrogation register. We received a copy of one page, but it showed only the names of [Vilmos] Langfelder and [Sandor] Katona, so the discussion went on and on. We insisted on seeing an uncensored full list.

In the context of these ongoing discussions which spanned months and years, the FSB [Russian security service] provided the information that, in addition to Langfelder and Katona who had been questioned for sixteen hours on July 23, [a person identified as] Prisoner Number 7 was also questioned on that day and on July 22. Based on the circumstantial evidence because of who was questioned when, etc. it appears that this person most likely was Raoul Wallenberg.

However, we were not aware of this before 2001. So this is how this particular release came about. Why the FSB released this information is in part due to two things: I think there had been previously some discussion of Wallenberg possibly being Prisoner Number 7 because this possibility had been raised by a former Soviet interrogator, but we had never ever been made aware that Prisoner Number 7 was listed in these interrogation registers and the Russians had never handed over either the information or an uncensored page.

This is my best explanation: there was this combined pressure to reveal the page, not giving the full page, but at least giving the information because they felt it had been previously discussed. But we had definitely never ever heard of Prisoner Number 7 being part of this line of people being questioned on July 22 and 23.

The motivation may have been mixed because we still have not seen the full uncensored version of these pages and the question is why.

The official explanation is that there are other names on this page that could be of interest and that it's a question of privacy. Well, there should be ways to work around these rules. It is done all the time in other archives and collections.

Researchers should be able to see this and verify the information. That is part of the rules of formal scholarly inquiry everywhere. That is the standard and that is what we should follow.

RFE/RL: There have been reports of sightings of Wallenberg after his supposed date of death. How much veracity do these reports have?

Berger: The problem is that we do not have an independently corroborated testimony for Wallenberg's survival after 1947. However, there is very important witness testimony that still needs to be verified.

In light of the fact that there is now a question of whether Wallenberg was possibly alive after his official death date indirectly and directly gives more credence to these reports or at least it increases the necessity of double checking those statements.

It's still possible that Raoul Wallenberg was killed some time around July 1947. It's also possible that he was instead strictly isolated and held as a prisoner under investigation for many years. If Wallenberg survived after July 1947, all other questions about his survival remain on the table.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.