Authors: Alan Lelchuk
Miriam at Thirty-Four
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Miriam in Her Forties
On Home Ground
Playing the Game
Ziff: A Life?
Copyright © 2015 by Alan Lelchuk
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, including electronic storage and retrieval systems, except by prior written permission of the publisher. Brief passages excerpted for review and critical purposes are excepted.
This book is typeset in Minion Pro. The paper used in this book meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39-48-1992 (R1997).
Publisher’s Cataloging-In-Publication Data
Searching for Wallenberg : a novel / Alan Lelchuk.
pages ; cm
Issued also as an ebook.
ISBN (ebook) 978-1-942134-15-2
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN (cloth) 978-1-942134-03-9
ISBN (paper) 978-1-942134-04-6
1. Wallenberg, Raoul, 1912-1947—Fiction. 2. Diplomats—Sweden—Fiction. 3. Righteous Gentiles in the Holocaust—Hungary—Fiction. 4. Jews—Hungary—History—20th century—Fiction. 5. College teachers—Fiction. 6. Mystery and detective stories. 7. Love stories. I. Title.
PS3562.E464 S43 2015
Image of Holocaust Memorial on the Danube River © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Jule Berlin
Designed by Barbara Werden
Printed in the United States of America
15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 / 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Mandel Vilar Press
19 Oxford Court, Simsbury, Connecticut 06070
To the memory of
I would like to acknowledge the generous help in Moscow of Nikita Petrov of Memorial House, and of Tatiana Lokis, my Russian translator and interpreter.
I would also like to thank the Wallenberg historian, Susanne Berger, for her gracious guidance.
The world remembers Raoul Wallenberg as the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Budapest in 1944–45, and was then arrested by the Soviets in 1945, taken to Moscow where he disappeared until his apparent death in 1947. When I first began researching the life of Wallenberg, in Budapest 2001, while I was teaching there and lived near his impressive Buda statue, the most obvious items were the major mysteries still outstanding. There were several. First, how and when did he die, in Lybianka prison in Moscow in 1947? Or did he live on, in some Gulag camp or psychiatric hospital? Second, and just as significant, why did he languish in a Soviet prison for two whole years, from 1945–1947, without being exchanged by the Swedish government—as other political prisoners in Europe were—or rescued by his very wealthy, well-connected family in Stockholm? Even now, some 65 years after the events, these mysteries have remained into the 21st century. (Despite the two recent biographies.) Yet perhaps the deepest mystery was,
who was Raoul Wallenberg?
Who was the
behind the legendary persona of noble diplomat and hero of Budapest Jews? The basic questions of his personal identity and motivation compelled me, as I studied the perplexing history.
Because of the above enduring mysteries, which existed as spaces or gaps to be meditated on and filled in, as plausibly as possible, I chose to look at my project from the perspective of fiction, and not history. (It helped that I was a novelist, yet I had been offered a chance to write it as history) This would enable the writer to imagine the scenes and characters with which to fill in those missing spaces. Especially since those mysteries had eluded the answers of historians and biographers for over half a century, it struck me that only within the realm of fiction would the writer have enough license and justification to imagine what might have really happened in the past. Hence the genre of the novel—the most flexible of the genres— seemed apt to suit the open-ended material. Yet, in order to give my poetic license and imagination a solid grounding, I knew I had to pursue the historical ground thoroughly. This meant homework by footwork, traveling to Stockholm, Budapest, Moscow, to interview witnesses and historians, read documents and archives, visit physical sites. In short, my grounding had to be firm enough for me to feel confident that I knew the material as well as any historian.
It turned out, surprisingly, that I was able to meet with several highly relevant figures still alive who had never before been visited or talked to. In Stockholm, I met Olof Selling, in his 70s, who had been in Officers training camp with young Raoul; this gentleman proved to be both frank and useful in revealing character traits already evident back then in the youthful Raoul, traits which would emerge in his mature life to help fill in the puzzle of his character. In Budapest I spoke with a survivor who knew Wallenberg as a 12 year old boy, a witness who explained how he and his fellow Jews saw and experienced, first hand, the Swedish savior. Also there I met with a Hungarian journalist who had specialized in the Wallenberg case, a gutsy lady who informed me of new, interesting information from the wartime years.
Most importantly in Moscow, I was lucky enough, by means of chance and timing, to meet with and interview the original KGB interrogator of Wallenberg in Lybianka Prison in 1945-47. Thanks to this octogenerian’s son, who answered the front door of his father’s apartment in central Moscow when my translator and I knocked unexpectedly on a Sunday afternoon—after he had told me
to come over—
I was fortunate to meet and talk with the reluctant Daniel Pagliansky, becoming the first and only Westerner ever to talk with this intentionally obscure and truculent agent.
(This meeting was witnessed by Daniel’s son, Georgy, and by my interpreter.) One week later, Pagliansky died at age 88.
So while I was trying to learn the history, I was also making some history.
What might I do with these actual events? I had several choices, but the one I decided upon was to write those real meetings into the fiction as they had occurred, at the same time that I felt more able to invent freely from those meetings, and project imaginatively onto other scenes with the same characters, though at a different historical time or place. For example, I recorded the actual meeting (from my notes) I had with the KGB officer, in Moscow in 2006, and then, based on that actual meeting, try to imagine the scene of the original interrogation, back in 1947. In
I indicate clearly which meeting is real, which scene is invented, so that the reader can judge for himself the value and credibility of each. My final hybrid creation is a mingling of the three: the experienced real, the historical, and the fictionalized; thus my reasoning for thinking of the work as a kind of docu-novel. To some extent the genre has been approached before, in works like
Compulsion, In Cold Blood or
The Executioner’s Song
, but in those books there was much more emphasis on simple re-enactments of past events, rather than what I was attempting—seeking to imagine and fill in gaps and mysteries in history by means of fictional scenes based on (my) actual meetings, which themselves are scenes in the novel. Far from playing tricks with the reader, my aim was to permit the reader more freedom and more authority to judge for him/herself the imagined realities and projected scenes by the author.
Since I had little interest in writing a conventional historical novel, I had also to figure out an overall scheme for my novel. To begin with, I brought in a chief co-protagonist—Manny Gellerman, a professor of history who grows interested in the topic of what happened to Wallenberg via a graduate student. By means of his professional curiosity, and his adventurous soul. Gellerman becomes part detective, part historian, gradually throwing in all his cards on a gamble that might lead him to a deeper understanding of the vanished mysterious Swede. The search leads him on unorthodox paths, which, in the end, allows him to travel as a kind of private alter ego to the lost Wallenberg, forming a comrade-ship marked by unusual intimacy and Secret-Sharer dialogues.
Any fictional work is of course judged by the qualities of invention and prose, and
is no different. This novel may present itself, however, with a larger burden upon the writer’s historical judgment and the basis for that judgment. Here I accept full responsibility for those judgments, and do not fall back on a novelist’s license of free imagination. My judgments on the history— or the missing history, the mysterious history— is fair game for the reader, be he an historian or a literary critic, a Wallenberg case follower or cult-fan. I can only hope that my rather unorthodox mapping of the old terrain is both compelling and revealing at the same time.