Searching for Wallenberg
by Alan Lelchuk
Mandel Vilar Press 2015
Review by Louis Gordon
The fate of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of countless Hungarian Jews in the last years of World War II, is as shrouded in mystery today as it was sixty years ago when he vanished during the Soviet occupation of Hungary. Was Wallenberg executed by the Soviets after capture? Did he die of a heart attack in a Soviet prison in 1947? Or did he languish in the Gulag for many years afterward, as reported by an assortment of witnesses? Alan Lelchuk’s novel, Searching for Wallenberg, offers a fictional account of Wallenberg’s life that draws on a startling nonfictional interview by the author with the Swedish diplomat’s KGB interrogator to create a narrative which is more illuminating than any history we have or may ever get.
The novel, alternating between historical accounts of Wallenberg’s life and imagined scenes which fill in many of the missing details, is narrated by a fictional professor named Emmanuel (“Manny’) Gellerman, whose passion is history. Gellerman teaches at Dartmouth College, an institution which Lelchuk, the author of such novels as Miriam at Thirty-Four (1974), Brooklyn Boy (1991), and Ziff, A Life? (2004), has called home for several decades. After reading a student’s paper on Wallenberg, Gellerman becomes intrigued with the Swedish diplomat’s story himself, and sets off to locate a woman in Budapest purported to be Wallenberg’s daughter. The woman, named Zsuzsa, claims to be Wallenberg’s daughter from a clandestine marriage to a young Jewess whose family had been saved by the Swedish diplomat. The evidence she presents to Gellerman, including a picture of Wallenberg and her mother’s marriage under a chupa in the forest, as well as an extensive correspondence between Wallenberg and her mother, are either elaborate forgeries or the real evidence of a little known chapter in Wallenberg’s life. Yet the existence of this unknown family potentially conflicts with another apparently little known aspect of Wallenberg’s life—his homosexuality, which was also kept hidden during wartime Budapest.
Now even more fascinated by the mysterious diplomat, Gellerman proceeds to look for more information on Wallenberg in Moscow. There he learns of the existence of Wallenberg’s KGB interrogator, an ailing eighty-eight year old man named Daniel Pagliansky. Despite being told by the family not to come, Gellerman proceeds to the Pagliansky’s house. He is let in by Pagliansky’s son, who allows him to secure the only interview with the man who interrogated Wallenberg ever conducted by a Westerner. What follows in the novel is Lelchuk’s own interview with the octogenarian Pagliansky, inserted into the narrative as if it were conducted by Emmanuel Gellerman. Though Pagliansky’s son refuses to allow Gellerman to question his father about Wallenberg, the interview is nevertheless striking for the details it reveals about the shriveled, white-haired former interrogator. As Gellerman/Lelchuk surveys the man’s bookcase, he is startled by the pictures of a rugged, good looking, youthful Pagliansky as well as several tomes in Yiddish, including one by Mendele, which indicate that Pagliansky is a Jew. The dialogue contained in the interview is astounding:
Manny got up and found the Mendele book and brought it to the desk. “I read this in my Hebrew school in Brooklyn, a Sholem Aleichem Bund school. It was good.”
The old man looked at him with new interest. “You can read Yiddish?”
“Well I did then, but probably not now. But Mendele was pretty good, as I recall.”
He nodded, and continued in English, “In Brooklyn, you came from there? I used to read the writers from Brooklyn from the 1930s—Michael Gold, Daniel Fuchs.”
Manny stared at this amazing, ghostly bag of bones, who was startling him with his memory, his education, his precision.
“To learn the idiom, of course. Reading those novels was the easiest way to obtain the idiom.”
No wonder they had picked this fellow for Raoul! A multiple-purpose brilliant talent.
“I didn’t know they had Bund schools over there,” Pagliansky murmured in Russian to his son.
“So you are Jewish yourself?”
“Yes,” I acknowledged. “Like yourself.”
He shrugged. “Religion played no part in our education, you understand.”
“I understand. I am not religious either.” (64)
The disturbing revelation that the Soviet interrogator of the man who sacrificed everything to save Hungarian Jewry was himself a Jew, albeit a non-practicing one, sets the tone for the alleged daughter’s sentiments that Wallenberg (who was one-sixteenth Jewish) was a tikkun, a “reparation”, for a deeply troubled world, and an unlikely savior who brought “healing, recovery, in the middle of catastrophe.” The interview leaves the reader with the hope that Pagliansky, who had previously declined to tell the KGB about Wallenberg’s end, will reveal more to Gellerman. Yet the old man is fatally injured in a fall at his 88th birthday party just a week after the interview with Gellerman, rendering that real life interview with Lelchuk of great historical importance, and providing the novelist with the opportunity to imagine what actually transpired between the Swedish diplomat and the Jewish KGB interrogator. The result in Lelchuk’s hands is a literary prism which offers the reader multiple refractions through which the reader can glimpse, in various hues, Wallenberg’s life and the motivations behind his actions, and one which can also serve as a reasonable historical interpretation of Raoul Wallenberg’s fate.
As the novel progresses, Lelchuk builds on these and other imagined scenes to construct what might have happened to Wallenberg while in Budapest and later in Soviet custody. There is a gathering of Wallenberg with some homosexual friends in a Budapest nightclub, an antagonistic meeting with Nazi genocide organizer Adolf Eichmann where Wallenberg confidently negotiates to save Jews, and then the interrogation sessions with a wiry young Pagliansky. As the KGB interrogator presses Wallenberg to confess or face death, we are reminded of the Soviet official, Ivanov, questioning the former commissar, Rubashov, in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon. In classic KGB manner, Pagliansky befriends Wallenberg, noting their similar backgrounds and interests in architecture while promising the Swedish diplomat respite if he provides the KGB with some information on his American sponsors or the origins of the cash he was safekeeping for the persecuted Jews. In Lelchuk’s scenes, Wallenberg resists the offers in a self-deprecating, yet graceful manner. After each imagined incident, Gellerman evaluates whether he got the scene right or missed some important aspect. But unlike Rubashov, the Wallenberg who is ultimately betrayed by his KGB interrogator does not confess to any crimes.
While Lelchuk necessarily devotes a considerable amount of the novel to the personal side of Wallenberg, he also creates fictional scenes which analyze the possible reasons why neither the Swedish nor the American governments interceded with the Soviets to save him. Most troubling is the lack of any serious efforts by his family to secure his release. The Wallenberg family controlled the Stockholms Enskilda Bank, the main banking institution in Scandinavia before the Nazis, and a money-laundering machine for the Nazis. In 1945, as the Soviets were taking away Wallenberg, the SEB was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s list of companies which were barred from engaging in business in the United States. As Gellerman proceeds to create his narrative of Wallenberg’s life, he speculates that the Swede’s family chose not to use their influence to secure his freedom either to hide their own misdeeds, including a wartime business alliance with the Nazis, and possibly to avoid embarrassment to the family in light of Wallenberg’s homosexuality. It would not have been of use to the Wallenbergs who were using any means to get off the blacklist if “Raoul—a loose cannon, a man of morality, and a family outlaw, as well as a figure of growing international reputation—were around and available to be called as a witness…” (90). Thus, they left him to the whims of the Soviet state.
While the novel can then be read purely on the level of an imaginative quest for the true story of Raoul Wallenberg’s life and ultimate sacrifice, there is yet another, even deeper level to this novel which should be explored. Indeed, Gellerman, as a stand in for Lelchuk, is able to work in a number of insights derived from the author’s life as a vantage point from which to understand the deeper meaning of Wallenberg’s heroic efforts. One such insight is Gellerman’s realization that Wallenberg and his boyhood hero Jackie Robison were both fighting evil at the same time in different places—Robinson by taunting the opposing teams and their racist fans, and Wallenberg by challenging the Nazis in his rescue of the Jews. Another is Gellerman’s feeling that the fires of the 1960s, that period of social unrest and protest “in which kids played mischievously and public theater mingled with the ideas of the New Left,” were being “tamped down” and the population “steadily tranquilized” (145). Gellerman muses that the new historians and journalists have scripted a new narrative about how dangerous and un-American those times were, an interesting commentary in that Lelchuk’s startlingly graphic 1973 novel, American Mischief, was the definitive portrayal of the unrest, excesses, and dangers of the era.
Along these lines, it might be noted that Lelchuk’s journey from very humble origins as the son of a Brownsville, Brooklyn communist garment worker to well-known novelist and Dartmouth professor was neither short nor easy. While Lelchuk has dealt with a number of autobiographical themes in his earlier novels, there are a number of subtle resolutions in Searching for Wallenberg to some of the controversies that have surrounded his work, not the least of which was the charge that Arthur Cohen once made in the New York Times, that Lelchuk was not in substance a Jewish writer. Yet in the focus on Wallenberg, Lelchuk has been able to draw on the best of the Yiddish literary tradition of his youth to create a story intertwined with a plea for a historical justice that is quintessentially Jewish. This use of Jewish imagery to anchor the novel’s deeper meaning is most poignant in a scene where Zsuzsa, determined to convince Gellerman of the righteousness of her efforts to publicize her “father’s” story, takes Gellerman to a Tisha B’av service where the lamentations for Jerusalem have never felt more powerful. While it is eventually revealed that Zsuzsa was actually raised Catholic and only returned to Judaism as a grown woman, an account which seems to contradict her claims that she was actually Wallenberg’s daughter, her devotion to the martyred Swede remains a powerful testament to the lasting power of the late diplomat’s role as a tikkun for humanity.
The hybrid genre of fiction intertwined with nonfictional aspects is increasingly more common, and with the insertion of the real life interview with Pagliansky into the fictional narrative, Lelchuk blazes an intriguingly sophisticated and new literary trail. Indeed, by the end of Searching for Wallenberg, the reader feels closer to understanding the complex nature of Raoul Wallenberg, a man who simultaneously was both a “pure and saintly” character, as well as a “flawed and tainted” individual who undertook an important mission for humanity as an outsider, as a Swede with some Jewish blood, and as a determined opponent of the brutal Nazi authority. While there are a number of aspects of Raoul Wallenberg’s life which could have motivated him to take action to save Budapest’s Jews, Lelchuk’s refusal to ascribe any one reason behind Wallenberg’s actions leads us to the same sort of feelings one has about Oscar Schindler, the subject of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982), later made into the film Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg. Wallenberg, like Schindler, acted to save Jews from harm, despite great personal risk. And while Wallenberg may or may not have had some personal motives, his primary reasons for undertaking such risks on behalf of the persecuted Jews seem to be simply because it was the right course of action. This in and of itself demonstrates why Wallenberg should be seen as a tikkun for the evils that racked Europe in the 1940’s, and it serves as an impetus for those in our own time who seek to eradicate evil and create a more just world.