An apocryphal Jewish tale has Moses ask God on Mount Sinai for a glimpse of the greatest student of his teachings. God deposits Moses in the classroom of the Second Temple-era Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva, whose teachings are so advanced that Moses cannot grasp a word of them. "Now that you've shown me his Torah," Moses requests of God, "show me his reward." God grants Moses a glimpse of Rabbi Akiva's flesh being weighed in the market, having been flayed from his body by his Roman tormentors. Moses is appalled, and cries out, "That was his Torah, and this is his reward?"
If there were a contemporary equivalent to this tale of cosmic injustice - of a man's extraordinary actions being answered with the least appropriate fate - it would be that of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and saviour of countless Hungarian Jews in the darkest hours of the Second World War. Wallenberg's story also inspires horror at the gulf between reward and punishment in our fallen world. The disjunction between his heroism and his destiny is galling, a perpetually bleeding wound that no amount of lip service to the moral order of the world can ever stanch. It is also the subject, in large part, of Alex Kershaw's fine new biography The Envoy, which details Wallenberg's brief life and extended half-life in the dim light of the Second World War and its aftermath.
"I'm looking for a Swede," a member of Franklin D Roosevelt's War Refugee Board announced in June 1944, "someone with good nerves, good language ability. He'll have to speak both German and some Hungarian. Someone who would be willing to go to Budapest and spend the next two months trying to save Jews from the Nazis. An independent spirit who does not need much direction. It's a big order."
Wallenberg was dispatched to Budapest by the Swedish government in 1944. He was 32 years old, prematurely balding, with a tendency to refer to himself as a "timid rabbit". He was also the scion of a distinguished family of Lutheran bankers and diplomats; a family that included his cousins Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, war profiteers who may have collaborated with the Nazis. Whether propelled by guilt, moral vigour, or a young man's drive to be a part of a glorious cause, Wallenberg packed a sleeping bag, a windbreaker, and a revolver, and departed for Budapest in the summer of 1944.
Wallenberg may have seen himself as one of the lesser animals in the forest, but he showed a remarkable fearlessness with the Nazis, and an instinctive understanding of the stakes. Deportation, for instance, meant death. "Please be so good as to inform Dr Lauer and his wife," he wrote in a letter to his mother, "that I have unfortunately found out that his parents-in-law and also a small child belonging to his family are already dead. That is to say, that they have been transported abroad, where they will not live for very long." Every Jew in Budapest was in immediate danger of death. Only Wallenberg and a handful of other courageous diplomats stood between them and the camps.
Kershaw's tightly plotted narrative cuts between Wallenberg's story, so fragmentary that it could hardly fill a book on its own, the scheming of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Nazi genocide, and the desperate efforts of a handful of Hungarian Jews to survive. The Envoy is framed as a suspense narrative in which the outcome is already foretold - a mystery whose hero is also its victim. This is a perilous tack to take with the story of a secular saint like Wallenberg, but one that proves successful for Kershaw, who is more storyteller than philosopher.
Upon his arrival in Hungary, the diplomat realised that Nazis - and their bloodthirsty colleagues in the Hungarian Fascist militia, the Arrow Cross - respected the imprimatur of officialdom, if nothing else. Putting his meagre resources to work, Wallenberg printed up thousands of schutzpasses - official-looking documents smothered in royal crowns and coats of arms. At first, Hungarian Jews had to establish a Swedish connection to qualify for one, but as Wallenberg took in the enormity of the crisis he was facing, he grew more creative. He would rush to places where Jews were being held and begin calling out popular Jewish family names, handing out passes as his assistants cajoled people to raise their hands.
To the desperate Jews of Budapest, Wallenberg was less inoffensive cottontail than angel of mercy. In the reminiscences of survivors, he is repeatedly described as swooping in at the last possible instant, asserting his authority with no concern for his own safety. He looms larger than life, his irrepressible moral force seemingly capable of transcending the dangers that prevented so many others from acting. For Jews like Susan Tabor, Wallenberg returned what they missed most: "He gave us back our dignity, our humanity… here was someone who thought we were human beings worth saving."
The Germans knew they were soon to lose the war, but the intensity of their devotion to anti-Semitic mass murder brooked no compromise. Eichmann toyed with the lives of the Jews under his power in Hungary, suggesting he might free 100,000 Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks, and later offering to turn a blind eye to the diplomatically questionable schutzpasses if he was granted 20,000 Jewish slave labourers. Wallenberg was not beyond wooing the likes of Eichmann, inviting him for dinner and plying him with fine wine. After the meal, Wallenberg opened the curtains to reveal the rapidly approaching barrage of Russian artillery bedazzling the sky.
The disparity between what the Nazis could destroy and what Wallenberg could save was appalling. Some 12,000 Jews were murdered every day of June 1944, and Wallenberg could not print passes in such profusion, let alone pass them out to Jews in time to save them. In just over six weeks, 437,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps. The survivors were hardly better off. "At the sight of them," notes Kershaw, "some Soviet soldiers, veterans of slaughter on the Eastern Front burst into tears, and then ripped the yellow stars off some of the Jews' coats." Nonetheless, Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews in just a few months, granting them life through the sheer force of his will, and his willingness to risk himself to save others.
The man who was so savvy in assessing the Nazis never appreciated the extent of the Soviet threat. On hearing that Budapest had fallen to the advancing Soviet forces, Wallenberg went alone to Russian lines to meet with their military staff, hoping to protect the remaining Hungarian Jews from further upheaval. Instead, he was arrested and taken back to Moscow. Raoul Wallenberg, who had saved thousands from one murderous black hole, disappeared into another.
The Soviets were convinced that Wallenberg was a German spy, or at the very least a capitalist, and the Swedish government was ill-inclined to start an international ruckus to save one lone diplomat. Wallenberg had long predicted he'd disappear into "darkness and fog", but he could not have known the uncanny accuracy of his words. For Wallenberg, as with so many others, the Soviet "liberation" was a farce: merely the substitution of one brand of tyranny for another.
The stories the Soviets distributed about Wallenberg kept changing - he had been killed by the Arrow Cross, had perished in a car accident, had died in prison - but Wallenberg's family never gave up hope that he still lived. His parents told his half-siblings to think of Raoul as likely being alive until the year 2000 - 55 years after his disappearance. There is a desperately sad photograph, reproduced in the book, of Wallenberg's half-brother Guy von Dardel standing in the courtyard of Moscow's Lubyanka prison, his coat flapping in the breeze, a small figure dwarfed by the hulking presence of that perpetual symbol of faceless Soviet brutality. One can only imagine what Wallenberg himself thought of his plight, imprisoned in a foreign country, with little hope of ever emerging. "The Russians robbed people of their souls," said Vera Herman, one of Kershaw's witnesses to the horrors of Hungary. "They would convince their prisoners that no one cared about them. It is just horrendous to think that they did that to him."
Raoul Wallenberg's story has no tidy conclusion, no pleasing final twist. Unconfirmed reports from Soviet prisons and gulags had Wallenberg possibly living into the 1960s, but the likelier outcome is that he was murdered by his captors soon after his arrest. The symbol of the righteous Gentile has also come to represent, against his will, the still-underappreciated horror of Stalinism.
Wallenberg is the bridge linking the two brands of matched murderous totalitarianism that fought over Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, his fate to successfully combat the one before vanishing into the maw of the other. His heroic, truncated, mysterious life is a necessary reminder that, for much of Eastern Europe, the liberation from Nazi terror was short-lived, replaced near-instantaneously by equally repressive, if slightly less bloodthirsty, Communist rule. We will never fully know, in all likelihood, what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, and that is apropos, for his absence stands in, metonymically, for all that we have yet to acknowledge about the horrors of central and eastern Europe in the mid-20th century. The Nazis were only half of it.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.