Life's Journey Times Three - What Happened to Wallenberg?

My husband (a Caltech alum) and I joined alums of Caltech and MIT and others recently at Cheesecake Factory in Skokie, IL to hear about current research being done in an attempt to determine the fate of Raoul Wallenberg.  This as yet unsolved mystery has brought together brilliant minds in many fields and in many places.  Our pleasant lunch could not compete with the stories being told and the audience sat in rapt attention, transfixed.

Lunch was not as interesting as the talk (Photo:Ari Kaplan)

This story could well be told as a “truth is stranger than fiction” book or a movie.  It is a complicated, fascinating story of the life journeys of three men and how they intertwine in and around Chicago.

Listening to Marvin Makinen and Ari Kaplan describe the effort they have made, attempting to learn the truth about Raoul Wallenberg, I wondered how they came to dedicate themselves to this task and how they happened to be working together.  Their level of devotion and perseverance is truly remarkable.

Before 1945, the life of Raoul Wallenberg, who ultimately saved the lives of 100,000 Jews during WWII, was not a mystery.  In fact, it is a well-documented and inspiring story.

Raoul Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912, three months after his young naval officer father succumbed to cancer.  Both of his parents were from prominent Swedish families. He was raised by his mother, and was supported and influenced by both his mother's and father's family.  His father’s family was distinguished in Sweden and worldwide and included successful bankers, diplomats, (such as his grandfather Gustav Wallenberg, Swedish Ambassador to Japan), and clergy, including a bishop in the Lutheran Church.

A young Raoul Wallenberg with his mother

His mother’s family was notable for having the first professor of neurology in Sweden and for his great-great grandfather, Benedicks, a Jew who settled in Sweden, became a jeweler and was the financial advisor to the Swedish king.

In 1918, when Raoul was six, his mother, Maj, married Frederick von Dardel and the couple had two children, Guy and Nina.  The family was very devoted and the siblings were all close to one another.

Raoul’s grandfather, who was in charge of his education, expected him to carry on the family tradition and become a banker, diplomat or politician.  In 1931 he followed another family tradition and after completing high school, nine months of compulsory military training and one year in Paris to upgrade skills in French, he went to the U. S to attend the University of Michigan.  Passing through Chicago in 1933, he attended the World’s Fair.  In February 1935 he received a B.A. in Architecture. This was followed by six months in South Africa and an apprenticeship with his grandfather’s friend at the Holland Bank in Palestine, a Jewish banker from The Netherlands. During this time he stayed in a kosher boardinghouse. It was in Palestine that Raoul first made contact with the „Hitler-Germany-Refugees“.

Raoul Wallenberg during his University of Michigan years

He was undirected for the next four years until 1941 when his uncle, Jacob Wallenberg, arranged for him to work with Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew in the export-import business devoted mostly to trading between Stockholm and Central Europe.  As Lauer was not able to travel freely in German occupied countries, Wallenberg took over with frequent travel to Budapest.  At this point he became aware of formerly prosperous Jews who had been reduced to wearing rags and begging as the result of the Nuremberg laws.  He saw Jews stripped of all rights by the German Reich become "non-persons".

History tells us that in 1944 Wallenberg was responsible for saving tens of thousands of Jews.  How could one man do this?  At that time Adolf Eichmann was sent to Hungary to complete Hitler’s “final solution” before the end of the war, and was dispatching 10,000 to 12,000 Jews to gas chambers daily.

A series of events resulted in Wallenberg’s role as a diplomat in the Swedish Legation in Budapest.  Iver C. Olsen,a representative of the War Refugee Board, established through the United States Government with the approval of Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the purpose of saving European Jewish Refugees, was assigned the responsibility  to appoint a representative of the War Refugee Board in Budapest.  This person could not represent the United States government but could go as a citizen of a neutral country, attached to its embassy.

Rounding up Jews in Budapest

In Sweden, Kalmar Lauer recommended Wallenberg to Olsen.  After Olsen’s first meeting with Wallenberg, he was convinced he had the right person.  At the request of the American Ambassador in Stockholm, the Swedish government approved Wallenberg as a diplomat in the Swedish Legation in Budapest.  Before beginning his assignment, Wallenberg sought and received permission from the Swedish Foreign Office to use any method (bribery included) in order to give asylum, in buildings belonging to the Legation, to anyone holding Swedish protective passes.

During the six months after he took this position, he devised bold and daring schemes that saved lives.  First he hired 400 volunteers to run his office and told them to remove their yellow stars.  Then he invented the Schutzpass, a special Swedish protective passport that announced the holder had a visa to Sweden and was under the protection of the Swedish government. He rented 32 buildings and managed to house 35,000 people in space intended for less than 5,000.  Also, as the German Army began its retreat from Budapest to escape the advancing Soviet Army, Wallenberg reportedly learned that General Schmidthuber, the commanding German officer, planned to bomb the Jewish ghetto where approximately 70,000 Jews were still alive.  At this point Wallenberg was a marked man to the notorious fascist Arrow Cross gang, who would have killed him, so he could not travel in the city and had to remain hidden during the closing days of the siege of Budapest.  However, it is reported that he made Schmidthuber aware through an official of the Hungarian government that he, Wallenberg, would personally ensure that Schmidthuber be tried for war crimes if he carried out the annihilation of the ghetto. The ghetto was not bombed.  Wallenberg is thus credited with having saved at least 100,000 Hungarian Jews from annihilation, about 30,000 through Swedish safehouses with Schutzpasses and 70,000 in the ghetto.

The Schutzpass

During the departure of the Germans and entry of the Soviet Army into Budapest, Wallenberg took refuge with Jewish survivors in the basement of a house belonging to the Swedish Legation on Benczur Street.  Here he was designing plans to organize rehabilitation of Jewish survivors in Budapest and to restore loss of their possessions.  On January 13, 1945, Soviet soldiers broke through the basement walls, not knowing that Jewish survivors and Wallenberg were on the other side.  Wallenberg immediately explained his presence, showed documentation of his diplomat status, and asked to speak to the highest officer in command.

From this point on Wallenberg’s fate was doomed, as he tried to bring the plight of the survivors to the attention of the Soviet commanding officers.  He finally asked to speak to the officer in command of the 2nd Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Army, General Malinovski, located in Debrecen.  Traveling to Debrecen, Wallenberg, and his assistant, Vilmos Langfelder were accompanied by Soviet Soldiers.  Unbeknownst to Wallenberg and Langerfelder, the Soviet Minister of Defense had issued an order that Wallenberg be arrested and brought to Moscow.  Having traveled by train via Rumania accompanied by Soviet officers, Wallenberg and Langefelder arrived in Moscow on February 6. 1945.

Here the mystery begins.  There are some documented but incomplete records of Wallenberg’s incarceration into early 1947.  The Soviets initially insisted that
Wallenberg was not known to be on Soviet territory and was not in their prisons.  In 1957, because of a stream of reports from repatriated prisoners-of-war who had been with or had known of Wallenberg during the early phase of his imprisonment,  the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs issued the so-called Gromyko Memorandum (in which “Wallenberg” was misspelled) which claimed that this healthy, physically active, young man with no family history of heart disease allegedly died of a myocardial infarct on July 17, 1947.

There is no documented evidence of death and  in more recent times the Soviets have tried to change the story that Wallenberg was likely executed.  There is a multitude of inconsistencies in Soviet (and more recently Russian) statements regarding Raoul Wallenberg including nine official statements concerning his alleged demise, each contradicting the previous one.  Consequently there has never been a clear reason to accept any of these statements.  In contrast, there has been a continual stream of reports and sightings of Wallenberg in prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric facilities into the early 1980’s.  This is the mystery that Marvin Makinen and Ari Kaplan along with several others have been trying to solve.

In 1963, when Marvin Makinen was 24 years old, he walked out of a Soviet labor camp after serving 28 months for espionage. He was released with an American Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Walter J. Ciszek, S. J., who had spent 25 years in the Soviet Gulag. They had been exchanged for Soviet spies and were sent home.

Today Makinen can be found at the Center for Integrative Science, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at The University of Chicago.  In July,, 1961, needing one course in political science course in order to complete requirements for a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he became an exchange student at the Free University of Berlin.  He remembers that the dean said, “I think a year in Berlin is worth more than three credit hours in political science”.  What an understatement these words proved to be.
After completing his studies in Berlin, Makinen traveled behind the Iron Curtain and was arrested in the city of Kiev, and charged with espionage while touring Kiev.  He was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment by a closed military tribunal.  He did, in fact, serve time as a political prisoner for the next 28 months, in four separate prisons and one labor camp. About half of the time in prison was spent in solitary confinement.

Marvin Makinen shows his prison identity card(photo:Ari Kaplan)

For 20 of those months Makinen was incarcerated in the notorious Vladimir Prison.  His world at that time was an 8 foot by 12 foot cell where a single light bulb shone day and night. Physical conditions were horrible; letters home were very limited, food was limited and of low nutritional value, toilet use monitored.  Somehow he found the focus and energy to become fluent in Russian and to read widely from classics and science books in Russian, German, and English borrowed from the prison library.

During 10 of the 20 months that Makinen spent in Vladimir Prison he was paired with a Latvian cellmate named Kruminsh,whom he believed to be an informer to prison authorities. In August, 1963 Makinen had been transferred to a labor camp where an older political prisoner asked about his cellmates in Vladimir.  Learning that one was Kruminsh, the man was disgusted, commenting that Kruminsh had shared cells with all the important foreigners; Gary Powers (downed American pilot), “you, Marvin” and the Swedish prisoner, “Vandenberg”.

Inside Lubianka Prison

On his release in 1963, Makinen shared this labor camp discussion with U. S. State Department officials in Washington, D.C.  A meeting with an official from the Swedish Embassy was immediately arranged.  At the time, Makinen was puzzled about the Swedish interest in the person with a Dutch sounding name.  About one year later, Makinen was invited back to the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C. to retell the labor camp interactions but learned only that this “Vandenberg” was a Swedish diplomat in Budapest who “helped Jews to escape from the Nazis “

Some seventeen years later Makinen learned from the article Lost Hero of the Holocaust by Eleanor Lester in the March 23, 1980, issue of the New York Times that the prisoner whose name he believed to be “Vandenberg”was likely Raoul Wallenberg.  Up to that time Makinen had never associated the two names and was generally unaware of the importance of the Wallenberg name in Sweden.  He contacted and later met Guy von Dardel, the maternal half-brother of Raoul Wallenberg, to explain his knowledge of the prisoner named “Vandenberg”.  Thereafter, von Dardel invited Makinen to appear at the International Wallenberg Hearing in Stockholm, January 17-19, 1981, organized by Guy von Dardel and his sister Nina Lagergren to bring international attention to the case of Raoul Wallenberg and the stonewalling behavior of the Soviet government and its continued refusal to provide complete explanation of Wallenberg’s fate. Thus was the beginning of a 29-year association of Makinen working with Guy von Dardel to try to determine Wallenberg’s fate.

This two-day meeting drew 800 attendees including journalists, investigators, human rights activists and two other former Soviet prisoners.  Reports collected by the Swedish Foreign Office described how prisoners communicated through Morse-code type messages, knocking on the wall between cells with a prisoner identifying himself as a Swedish diplomat from Budapest.  An amazing amount of information surfaced at that time, 90% of which has since been substantiated.  Possibly the strongest report came from a Frenchman who spent 28 years in a Soviet Prison and testified that he had spent six days in a cell with Wallenberg at Lubianka Prison in December, 1947, five months after Wallenberg’s alleged death.

Lubianka Prison, 2003

And so begins a roller coaster ride.  The Soviet claim that Wallenberg died on July 17, 1947, has been challenged by eyewitness and secondhand accounts of contact with Wallenberg during the 1950’s and even much later.  When von Dardel requested that Makinen join a ten-member commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate, Makinen felt his only choice was to respond positively. von Dardel hoped that Makinen would be able to shed light on the Soviet prison system based on his personal experience. The ten-member group, called the Soviet- International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg, with Makinen being the only American, spent two weeks in August of 1990 combing the archives of the Vladimir Prison.  Makinen stressed that this investigation was unprecedented in Soviet history since never before had Soviet authorities opened the archives of their political prison system to outside inspection, and they were granted records that no Westerners and few Soviets had ever seen. While they were not able to find a prisoner registration card for Raoul Wallenberg or for Vilmos Langfelder, they learned that  political sensitive prisoners in some cases had been identified only by a number and that their true identities were withheld from the prison staff.  This policy may well have been applied also to Raoul Wallenberg. The experience from this initial investigation formed an important base for later research.  There had never been any documentation released in the Soviet Union prior to 1990 stating that the identity of sensitive political prisoners was concealed by assigning numbers and withholding their legal names from prison personnel.

After the demise of the Soviet government in 1991, Guy von Dardel continued to press for continued investigation and access to Soviet and Russian archives to uncover the fate of his brother.  A bilateral committee was appointed through both the Swedish and Russian governments including officials from the former Soviet KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Defense, and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish Security Police.  This committee was called the Swedish-Russian Working Group on the Fate of Raoul Wallenberg.  Not only was Guy von Dardel a permanent member of the Working Group but also the Swedish Foreign Office requested that Makinen be allowed to participate as a permanent consultant in all phases of the investigative work.

As a consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group, Makinen, together with Guy von Dardel, made another trip to the Vladimir Prison in December, 1993, to inspect additional documents in the prison archives.  On this trip Makinen interviewed an elderly Russian employee of the prison, Varvara Ivanovna Larina, who had worked only in Korpus (Building) 2 of the prison since the late 1940s.  Having been informed only that Makinen was trying to find traces of foreign prisoners, she recalled a prisoner “of Western but non-German origin” who had been held for a lengthy period of time in solitary confinement. Explaining why she remembered this prisoner from the hundreds of others that she had seen, Larina explained that he incessantly complained about everything, including the food rations that were always cold by the time they were delivered to his cell.  Finally, she stated, the head guard ordered her to deliver food rations to this prisoner first. This statement not only showed that the prisoner was under a special regime, since any ordinary Russian prisoner would have been sent to the punishment cell for such behavior, but the order changed Larina’s work for the length of time that the prisoner was incarcerated in Vladimir.  Larina recalled that the prisoner was in Vladimir in a cell on the third floor of Korpus 2 opposite to that where a prisoner by name of Osmak died. To deliver the food rations to this prisoner first, Larina had to climb the stairs to the third floor, fetch the prisoner’s plate and cup, return to the first floor, dole out the food ration, and reclimb the stairs to the third floor for each meal. Furthermore, from a collection of photographs of men with different head shapes, with and without eyeglasses, etc., among which were also some of Raoul Wallenberg, Larina picked out a side profile of Raoul Wallenberg as the prisoner in solitary confinement.  The photograph had never appeared in the international press.  Later inspection of prison documents showed that the prisoner Kiril Ivanovich Osmak died on May 16, 1960.

Russian members of the Swedish-Russian Working Group were hesitant to act on the information provided by Larina, claiming initially that they could find no record of a prisoner by name of Osmak. However,  they finally acquiesced to Makinen’s insistent request to carry out an occupancy analysis of the cells in Korpus 2.  Makinen’s plan was straightforward:  If Larina’s recollection of the events was correct, since the Soviets and Russians claimed that Wallenberg was never in the Vladimir Prison, the analysis would show that a cell opposite to that of Osmak’s would have no identifiable occupants in May, 1960, because authorities would have removed the documents.  On the other hand, if Larina were mistaken through faulty memory, the analysis would likely show that cells opposite Osmak’s cell would all have identifiable occupants.  The Russian government allowed access to the prisoner registration files of the Vladimir Prison in 1998.  The principle and methodology behind the occupancy analysis were clear to Makinen, but he knew that he needed assistance with the analysis. In 1990, approximately 1200 prisoner registration cards had been photographed, and Makinen expected that analysis of approximately 10,000 cards would have to be carried out to test Larina’s statements.  Makinen knew that he did not have the computer expertise to carry out the analysis alone.  But where was he going to find the needed computer expert who would be willing to devote time and energy on a pro bono basis to such an open-ended problem?

It was serendipity that brought, Ari Kaplan, the “new kid on the block”, to the problem in 1998.  Susan Mesinai, based in New York, and also an independent consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group with Makinen, learned about his need for finding an appropriate computer expert to construct the database to move the investigation forward.  She heard of someone in Chicago with the requisite level of computer skill in using Oracle (a program capable of sorting hundreds of thousands of records of information and widely used by major industries in the United States). It happened this way:  Wallenberg’s former secretary, Agnes Adachi, who lived in Long Island, NY, and was a friend of Ari Kaplan's mother, knew Susan Mesinai.  Susan learned from Agnes about Ari’s computer experience and skills and recommended Ari to Makinen.  Makinen was surprised and delighted to find a person with the necessary skills in his “own backyard”, the city of Chicago. With nothing more than a brief introduction to each other, the two immediately began working out how to develop software for the analysis and tested it preliminarily with copies of the prisoner registration cards made in 1990. For the final analysis, over 11,000 prisoner registration cards were scanned in 1998 representing about 8000 prisoners, all of whom had spent at least one day in Korpus 2 between January 1, 1947, and December 31, 1972. 

In this March 1997 file photo provided by U.S. researcher Susan Mesinai, Raoul Wallenberg's half-brother Guy von Dardel, far left, and U.S. researcher Marvin Makinen, second left, are seen with unidentified Russian officials as they look through more than 100,000 prisoner registration cards at Vladimir Prison outside Moscow

The Russian government stipulated that the database could not be removed from Russian territory, making it necessary for Kaplan and Makinen to carry out all of the analysis in Moscow.  They accomplished this feat by making approximately twelve 1-2 week trips to Moscow over the 1998-2000 period.  The laptop computers supplied by the Swedish Embassy were kept under tight supervision by Russian prison authorities and could not be removed from Moscow.  Also, Makinen and Kaplan could not use their personal laptop computers in the same room where the computers were located in which the database was stored.  Makinen and Kaplan, with temporary office space provided within the administrative section of a large prison, generally found themselves working 14-16 hours daily during each trip. The work was exhausting but the feeling of satisfaction upon completing the analysis was a reward that was irreplaceable. They had confirmed the statements of Larina, showing that the cell opposite Osmak’s cell had no identifiable occupant for over 270 consecutive days.  This indicated that authorities had removed the prisoner registration cards of the prisoner described by Larina to conceal his identity. Makinen and Kaplan also were able to confirm in a similar manner several other eyewitness statements of a “foreign” or “Swedish” prisoner in the Vladimir Prison over the 1947-1972 time period.

Ari explained that becoming part of the group has impacted his life in that “it has been a honor to have worked for almost 12 years with the late Guy von Dardel (Raoul’s maternal half-brother) and everyone else on the team.  It is rewarding to help uncover the truth of the fate of one of human history’s greatest heroes.  My life has been enriched with the international work, and seeing the large interest and response from the worldwide community and media".

Two articles from 1990/91 tell about Makinen’s work.  One was in the Tempo section of the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, October 1, 1991, entitled, Captive Truth, U.of C Chemist works to liberate the facts on Raoul Wallenberg by Barbara Mahany.   The other, Dark Passage, Marvin Makinen and the Search for Holocaust Hero Raoul Wallenberg, by Paul R. McGinn, was featured in the Winter 1990/91 issue of Medicine on the Midway, a University of Chicago medical alumni bulletin . Now almost twenty years later, in “The New York Review of Books” on April 30, 2010, Amy Knight, a prominent historian of Soviet and present-day Russia, in her article, What Happened to Wallenberg: Russia’s Chilling Revelation revisits the investigation in the light of newly released information in an 8-page letter written by the Russian Federal Security Service in response to questions submitted by archive researchers Susanne Berger and Vadim Birstein.  The letter states that Wallenberg was “in all likelihood” the “prisoner number 7”interrogated on July 22, 1947, and goes on to tell of Russian revelations that promise to shed even more light on the case.

The Wallenberg stamp

Marvin Makinen and Ari Kaplan are hoping their life journeys bring closure to their long search.  Together with Susan Mesinai and Susanne Berger, they have produced “17 Questions” which specify the next steps in the investigation.  In the meantime, they are hoping for funding to continue this work.  Anyone interested in contributing to this research can contact Ari Kaplan at: [email protected] (or call 312.513.0091) or Marvin Makinen at [email protected] (or call 773.702.1080).  I promise to report new findings.
Photos:  Google Images

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