Fragments of the Life of a Man Who Disappeared, 1945-1999
by András Mink
Raoul Wallenberg left Budapest for Debrecen with a Soviet military escort on January 17, 1945. This was the last time that the saviour of thousands of persecuted Jews during the siege of Budapest was seen in Hungary. For long decades after that neither the Hungarian Jewish community, nor the rest of the Hungarian public, knew anything about his subsequent fate.
After the War the leaders of the Hungarian Jews and the new Hungarian political elite attempted to commemorate his life-saving work. Béla Zsedényi, president of the Provisional National Assembly, expressed the gratitude of the Hungarian nation in a letter adressed King Gustav V of Sweden. The Budapest Jewish Community issued a ceremonial diploma, recording the memory of his deeds. They also decided to name a pavilion in the Jewish hospital after Wallenberg. In the autumn of 1945 the Wallenberg Committee was founded in order to erect a statue to him in the Szent István park in Budapest, using funds contributed by private donors. Numerous representatives of large companies and banks joined the initiative, including the director of the Goldberger Company. In December 1945, the former Phonix street was renamed Wallenberg street, and a memorial plaque was placed there. The inscription on the plaque reflected the generally accepted version of events: after leaving Budapest, Wallenberg was ambushed and killed by a Nazi gang. Jeno Lévai's biography, published in 1947, told the same story.
The sculptor Pál Pátzay prepared the designs and a scale model of the monument by the end of 1945. The statue itself was ready by the end of 1948, and with finacial help from the Budapest Municipality it was erected in February, 1949. April 10 was announced as the day of the ceremonial inauguration. However, the night before, as an eye-witness, the famous writer and literary patron Baron Lajos Hatvany reported later on, the monument was knocked down. There can be no doubt that the demolition was the result of Soviet pressure.
The damaged sculpture was shipped to the depot of the Capitol Gallery. Duly restored, it was shown at the first Hungarian Art Exhibition in 1950. Pátzay wanted to rename it 'Victory over Fascism', but the official censors still found the work too abstract to convey this message. In 1953, it was erected in front of the Biogal Pharmaceutical Company in Debrecen, with the title 'Man With Serpent'; there was no reference to its former function. One replica of the statue was purchased by the Indonesian president Sukarno during his visit to Hungary in 1962, another was placed in front of the Radiology Clinic in Budapest in 1974. A small plaque revealing the original purpose of the work was finally placed on the second replica in 1989. After 1949, the memory of Wallenberg was preserved only by a street in Budapest and a plaque. Moreover, in 1953 the state security police started to work up an "anti-Zionist" show trial. The chief suspects were the leaders of the Budapest Jewish community, Lajos Stöckler, Miksa Domonkos and László Benedek, and one of the intended charges was the murder of Raoul Wallenberg. Although this latter charge was eventually dropped, Stöckler spent three years in prison, and Benedek one. Miksa Domonkos was released after nine months of his arrest, however, due to the tortures he suffered, he died in Spring, 1954.
The first article that broke the silence was János Potó's essay on the history of the statue, published in the journal História in Spring 1984, which also briefly discussed Wallenberg's life-saving activities. In the same year the 40th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust was officially commemorated and cautious attempts were made to resume diplomatic contacts with Israel, which had been broken off in 1967. The sculptor Imre Varga remembers how Nicolas Salgo, the Hungarian-born American ambassador to Budapest, approached him in 1985 and asked whether he would dare to create a statue to Wallenberg. Varga, a former disciple of Pátzay's, took on the task. His work, which was inspired by his master's sculpture, was installed in the garden of the US Embassy residency in Budapest. In Spring 1987 János Kádár, chief secretary of the Party, planned to visit Sweden. During the preparations the Hungarian side was informed through diplomatic channels that the Hungarian leader could expect questions relating to Wallenberg. At that time Salgo visited Kádár, and offered Varga's monument to the Hungarian state. It was decided that the statue should be erected in Buda, at quite a distance from the area of Wallenberg's activities. On April 22, in a speech in Stockholm, Kádár praised Wallenberg's role in saving the "persecuted." Some days before the inauguration of Varga's monument Magyar Hírlap, the semi-official daily of the Hungarian government, published an article which unequivocally admitted that Wallenberg had been kidnapped to the Soviet Union and died in the formidable prison Lubyanka in Moscow in 1947. The statute was inaugurated at Szilágy Erzsébet avenue on May 15, 1987 by the Budapest secretary of the Patriotic Front, a re-latively low ranking official in the Hungarian hierarchy.
As the change of regime proceeded, Wallenberg was mentioned more often in the Hungarian press. In 1989, Lévai's biography was re-issued, and a series of articles by Emil Horn, Mária Ember, János Dési and others discussed his fate. His plaque was replaced, with the false information removed.
The omission of the date of his death from the new plaque provoked heated debate. In 1992, a commemorative exhibition was organised by Emil Horn, with the assistance of Mária Ember. Several historical and literary works about him were published. Different theories emerged as to why he was kidnapped by the Soviets: the Soviets suspected him of spying for the Americans; he was a double agent, who had suspicious contacts with German officers. He held documents on the Katyn massacre in his safe-deposit box in a Budapest bank. He was shot dead when the Soviet intelligence services tried to recruit him in but he refused to cooperate. There was also speculation about whether he really died in 1947, as the official Soviet statement claimed, or much later. Witnesses came forward who claimed to have seen him in various Siberian camps in the 1960s and 70s. Some even thought that he was still alive in the 1990s. The details of his kidnapping and death are still unclear.
In 1998, Mátyás Vince and Gábor Deák initiated the foundation of the Wallenberg Statue Committee. They started to raise private funds to restore Pátzay's monument on its original Budapest site in Szent István park, in the area where the Swedish "protected houses" were located in the winter of 1944-45. The sculpture was erected in its original form, but on a new plinth designed by the architect László Rajk, in April 1999, on the 50th anniversary of its demolition.