Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


A Letter of Appeal on Behalf of Raoul Wallenberg

Historical Background

On January 17, 1985, bells at the Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City tolled 40 times for Raoul Wallenberg, a man whose disappearance has diminished all of humankind.

Back in the spring of 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had broadcast a radio appeal to Hungarian Christians and antifascists to help the Jews of Hungary survive the Nazi occupation. The U.S. War Refugee Board was authorized to raise funds for rescue efforts in Hungary through a group called the Joint Distribution Committee. Because Hungary and the United States were at war with each other, it was necessary to find a neutral nation to distribute these American funds. Sweden agreed to cooperate with the United States in this humanitarian action.

The Swedish national who took charge of the mission in Hungary was Raoul Gustav Wallenberg. Born in Sweden on August 4, 1912, Wallenberg was a 1935 graduate of the Architectural School of the University of Michigan. He accepted the post of special attaché and second secretary to the Swedish Legation in Hungary, and reported to Budapest in July 1944. As a result of his unremitting efforts and ingenuity, the War Refugee Board credited him with protecting from Nazi persecution at least 20,000 Hungarian Jews.

At extreme risk to himself, Wallenberg used both conventional and unconventional methods to buy time for the Jews of Hungary until the advancing Russian army could liberate the country. His main tactic was to issue Swedish "protective" citizenship documents, technically removing anyone holding them from Hungarian jurisdiction. The Nazi collaborator heading the wartime Hungarian regime, Premier Szalasi, decreed in October 1944 that Swedish protective citizenship would not be recognized. But Wallenberg continued to issue the documents and pursue other means, even bribing fascist officials as opportunity presented itself.

In January 1945 the Red Army began to occupy Budapest, starting with the eastern section of the city, Pest. On January 17, Wallenberg went to meet the Soviet commander, Marshal Malinovsky, to transfer his charges from Swedish to Russian protection. He wanted to continue traveling eastward by car to Debrezen in an effort to contact the returning Hungarian government-in-exile so that his mission would not be interrupted by the fighting that would accompany the Russian occupation of Budapest. Raoul Wallenberg has not been seen since that day, 40 years ago. Ironically, this dauntless crusader for human rights has himself become the object of repeated investigations concerning the violation of his own human rights.

In January 1945, the Soviet Foreign Office announced that Wallenberg was under Russian protection. On May 24, 1945, the Swedish Legation in Moscow confirmed to the Swedish Foreign Ministry that Russiantroops indeed had found Wallenberg. The wartime Soviet Minister to Stockholm, Mme. Kollontai, thereupon assured Wallenberg’s family that he was alive and well. Shortly thereafter, the Swedish Minister to Moscow asked for an investigation of his countryman’s disappearance, and Stalin assured him that he would personally press the matter. The Russians argue that this commitment was fulfilled the next year when the government of Hungary tried, convicted, and executed a Hungarian fascist sympathizer for killing Wallenberg during fighting in Buda, the western sector of Budapest, at the time of the Red Army’s occupation of the city. The Soviets have since changed their account and claim that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in 1947 in a Soviet prison.

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Yet a large body of evidence suggests that Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in January 1945, and has been held in internment camps in the Communist bloc ever since. Frustration with the failure of any investigation to resolve the question of Wallenberg’s whereabouts prompted Guy von Dardel, Wallenberg’s stepbrother, to write an appeal to President Harry S Truman.

Another strategy to obtain answers about Wallenberg’s circumstances was to bring his name before the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. In 1948 an international effort was launched to propose Wallenberg as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize to draw attention to his contributions to human rights—and to his plight. In 1984 he was once again actively suggested for the award, in recognition of his gift of life to the Jews of Hungary at the cost of his own freedom.

Although the Swedish Foreign Ministry has pursued the case quietly since Wallenberg’s disappearance, and prominent humanitarians—from Albert Einstein to Eleanor Roosevelt—have endeavored to determine his whereabouts, world awareness was not drawn to the case until the early 1980s, after Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize. During his visit to Stockholm to receive his award, Solzhenitsyn met with Wallenberg’s mother and urged her to insist that the Swedish government take a more public, insistent approach to pressure the Kremlin to account for her son.

In 1985, in the midst of many 40th anniversary remembrances of the close of World War II, commemorative meetings have recalled the unanswered questions about Wallenberg’s fate.

The document reproduced here, Guy von Dardel’s letter to President Truman, is located in Decimal File 701.5864, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

Teaching Activities

The following three activities vary according to ability level and interests. Each anticipates a higher level of skills than the preceding activity. They should be presented sequentially, although you may terminate the lesson after any one.

1. Interpreting the Document. Present the letter to students and ask them to determine the facts of the situation and then share their answers in class discussion.

a. Why does Guy von Dardel believe that the U.S. government has a responsibility to assist in locating Raoul Wallenberg?

b. According to the letter, what did Raoul Wallenberg accomplish from July 1944 to January 1945? What specific actions did he take in order to accomplish his humanitarian mission?

c. According to von Dardel, what is the position of the Russian government on the Wallenberg case? What major discrepancies between the initial and the final Russian position does he point out?

d. What information does von Dardel have that makes him believe his step-brother is alive? At the time of his letter, where does von Dardel believe Raoul is located?

e. After examining Wallenberg’s background and activities, can you explain why the NKVD might have suspected him ofespionage?

f. Von Dardel charges that the Soviet military authorities named a street and held memorial services for Raoul so that "the curtain of oblivion" would be dropped on his actual fate, Does memorializing persons or declaring them dead seem to close cases or defuse public concern? Explain.

g. How reliable is von Dardel’s letter as a source of accurate information? Consider the circumstances surrounding it, von Dardel’s bias, the absence or presence of other information, and your own biases as you evaluate this document’s reliability. Pay close attention to von Dardel’s chronology of events.

Raoul Wallenberg

2. Related Topics and Questions for Research and Reports. For further study of the issues Surrounding this letter, ask students to conduct independent research and make reports on the following topics.

a. Quiet Diplomacy: Ask students to investigate cooperative efforts between the U.S. and foreign governments to resolve human rights violations, for example:

The Algerian-U.S. effort to release hostages in Iran
The Laotian-U.S. effort to determine the fate of Vietnam-era POWs-MIAs
The Colombian-U.S. effort to fight drug trafficking (addiction)

b. Landmark Documents of International Human Rights in the 20th Century: Ask students to write personal definitions of human rights, Recommend that they familiarize themselves with major documents of 20th century human rights including:

The Covenant of the League of Nations
The Geneva Conventions
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations
The Helsinki Accords

As a class, develop a definition of what constitutes human rights and what constitutes violations of those rights. Discuss why actions that today are considered violations of human rights were regarded as acceptable behavior by government or society in the past. Focus on U.S. examples, such as slavery, dispossession of the Native Americans, and incarceration of the mentally ill or incompetent.

c. Human Rights Violations: (1) In 1983, the play Wallenberg: Five Days, written by Carl Levine, premiered in Denver. If you wish to obtain copies for students to do a dramatic reading, write for further information to Dr. Carl Levine, 817 Balsam Lane, Fort Collins, Colorado 80526. (2) Students may wish to read accounts of violations of human rights in other countries. There are excellent accounts of Russian violations by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example: The Gulag Archipelago (nonfiction), The Love Girl and the Innocent (play), and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (novel). It might be illuminating to compare the ideals expressed in articles 125, 127 and 128 of the Soviet Constitution with Solzhenitsyn’s testimony. Accounts of violations in other nations include Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country, set in the Union of South Africa, and Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (nonfiction), set in Argentina.

3. Action Strategies. Students as a group or as individuals may wish to write letters or circulate petitions to aid victims of human rights violations, developed from the following information:

a. A postcard distributed at the premierof Levine’s play carried the message: I urge the immediate release of Raoul Wallenberg on humanitarian grounds. (Name and address of sender.) Address the postcard to:

Mikhail Gorbachev
The Kremlin
Moscow, RSFSR

b. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Human Relations has produced a number of committee reports that might indicate areas of current U.S. concern and strategies of the government and private citizens to promote international human rights.

c. Amnesty International USA has a free packet of materials available to teachers and will send monthly "Urgent Action Appeals" to aid unjustly incarcerated individuals anywhere in the world. Teachers may call 303-440-0913 or send for "The High School Urgent Action File" from:

Urgent Action Network
Box 1270
Nederland, CO 80466

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Chicago: "A Letter of Appeal on Behalf of Raoul Wallenberg," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 170–175. Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XTSLFZHHNGMPE7Q.

MLA: . "A Letter of Appeal on Behalf of Raoul Wallenberg." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 170–175. Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XTSLFZHHNGMPE7Q.

Harvard: , 'A Letter of Appeal on Behalf of Raoul Wallenberg' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.170–175. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XTSLFZHHNGMPE7Q.