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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 12:21 GMT
Profile: Sweden's Holocaust hero

Raoul Wallenberg is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews, but was unable to save his own.

The young Swede had been sent to Hungary to issue travel documents to Jews facing deportation - where he was able to secure freedom for thousands of families.

Raoul could not only speak perfect German, he could scream it

Wallenberg's half-sister Nina Lagergren
But as Soviet troops swept through Hungary, driving back the Germans, Wallenberg was left stranded, perhaps unaware that he was now at greater risk than ever.

Some believe that - because of his influence with the Nazis in saving Jews - the Soviets suspected him of being a German agent, and had him brutally interrogated.

The last confirmed sighting of him was in Budapest in January 1945, leaving the newly-established Soviet military headquarters.

Swedish ID issued by Wallenberg
Swedish papers are thought to have saved thousands of Jews
Last year, a former Soviet soldier claimed he had arrested Wallenberg later in 1945, in a town outside Budapest, after noticing that he did not have a standard-issue army mess tin. He said the prisoner was handed over to Soviet intelligence.

For years the Soviet Union said the Holocaust hero had died of natural causes in 1947 after a KGB interrogation, but denied widespread rumours that he had been executed.

But finally, in the dying months of 2000, an official report from Moscow investigators said Wallenberg had been put to death in 1947.

Bargaining chip

Other officials said the execution had taken place in Moscow's notorious Lubyanka jail.

But even that has not ended the mystery. A Swedish-Russian working group says he could have been kept alive for use as a possible bargaining chip.

Some prisoners reported seeing him alive well into the 1950s, and even into the 1980s.

His half-sister, Nina Lagergren, says he could even be alive today. He would be 88.

The Swede was an unlikely hero.

Born into one of Sweden's wealthiest and most prominent families, the young Wallenberg was sent to the United States by his grandfather who wanted him to capture some "American spirit".

ID issued by Wallenberg
Whenpassports ran out, Wallenberg printed more
By the time he was sent to Budapest, as a dashing young man in his early 30s, he had developed a spirit of courage and belief in what could be achieved.

He supervised the handing out of thousands of Swedish passports, a guarantee of life and freedom to those Jews who could get their hands on one.

When supplies ran out, extra copies were printed. Some he handed out himself. Safe houses were established. He was reputedly fearless in facing down Nazi officers.

Ghetto 'saved'

"Raoul could not only speak perfect German, he could scream it," Nina Lagergren has been quoted as saying.

Legend has it that he even intervened personally to halt a planned Nazi attack on a Jewish ghetto, threatening an SS general.

The most popular estimate says 100,000 lives were saved; others say up to 200,000.

The true figure may be far lower, but Wallenberg's personal impact was hugely significant.

Before he arrived in Budapest, the Swedish policy of saving Jews by issuing them with travel documents was already in place, but was seen as chaotic and ineffective.

Some say the legend of Wallenberg has grown because of his tragic fate; that his accomplishments were exaggerated because of the poignancy of his own sacrifice.

Such myths, it is argued, take away from the achievement and courage of others who were part of the chain but whose names were never known.

But few dispute that Wallenberg set about his task with such vigour and courage that his place in history would have been assured - with or without his own death.

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See also:

12 Jan 01 | Europe
Wallenberg riddle lives on
28 Nov 00 | Europe
Sweden's WWII hero 'executed'
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