The Angel Was a Spy

New evidence: Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg was a U.S. espionage asset

By Charles Fenyvesi and Victoria Pope


For five decades, mystery has blanketed key parts of the remarkable story of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved at least 20,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. U.S. intelligence kept mum lest it confirm the Soviet charge that he had been an American spy. The silence was purposeful: There were strong hopes that he was alive in the gulag but stronger fears that any hint of his ties to U.S. intelligence would stoke Soviet anger.

But a six-month investigation--involving examination of thousands of recently declassified files, some of which the Central Intelligence Agency just released to U.S. News under the Freedom of Information Act, and scores of interviews with American, Russian and European sources--shows conclusively that Wallenberg was a valued U.S. intelligence asset. His appointment was approved by President Franklin Roosevelt, and his mission was not only to save Jews but to provide U.S. spymasters with access to anti-Nazi resistance forces trying to break up Budapest's alliance with Berlin. For the Office of Strategic Services--precursor to the CIA--Wallenberg was probably the only reliable man in wartime Budapest.

Confirmation. One of the newly released CIA documents is a 1990 memo in which William Henhoeffer, curator of the CIA's Historical Intelligence Collection, declares that revelations of Wallenberg's intelligence connections "are essentially correct." CIA historian Kevin Ruffner agrees: "On the basis of the files cited in your article, it is a reasonable conclusion that Raoul Wallenberg was of benefit to American intelligence." Donald Jameson, a former senior CIA official, calls this statement "a virtual admission that Wallenberg was used by us. It is a minimum statement the CIA can make and still be plausible."

Aware of Wallenberg's ties to U.S. intelligence, the Soviets spirited him out of Budapest in January 1945. Russians today say he was either shot or poisoned in 1947. However, U.S. News has tracked down several new credible eyewitnesses who say they saw Wallenberg after the "official" 1947 death date. One of his close colleagues, retired Swedish Ambassador Per Anger, is convinced that he was alive as late as 1989 and may be alive today.

THE APPROACH The Wallenberg saga, as told by biographer Kati Marton, began with a casual elevator chat between two strangers working in the same downtown Stockholm building: Kalman Lauer, owner of an export-import firm, and Iver Olsen, an OSS operative whose overt job at the U.S. Embassy was finances. Once Olsen found out that Lauer was a Hungarian Jew, he asked for help in finding a Swede "with good nerves" to go to Budapest to save Jews. Lauer suggested his employee, Raoul Wallenberg.

The job interview took place soon after, on a warm night in June 1944 at the resort of Saltsjobaden. Wallenberg was on furlough from Sweden's National Guard--arranged by Olsen. By the end of the meal, Olsen knew he had his man: strong willed, eager to make his mark in the world, an anti-Nazi with American ties thanks to his architecture degree from the University of Michigan. It did not matter that he came from a family, dubbed Sweden's Rockefellers, whose companies supplied Germany's war machine with materials such as steel and ball bearings.

The files record that one OSS official expressed worry that his "personal history" would render Wallenberg a "doubtful" ally. But Olsen prevailed. At Washington's behest, Sweden assigned Wallenberg to its Budapest legation. Supposedly neutral in the war, the Swedes agreed to the unusual arrangement to relieve U.S. pressure to stop trading with Germany. Influential Hungarians were also apparently involved in Wallenberg's placement. One 1954 memo from a CIA informant (the name inked out by declassifiers) notes that a Hungarian in Stockholm, Kalman Geiger, "assisted informant in inserting Roul [sic] Wallenberg into Hungary during WW II as an agent of OSS."

The 31-year-old Wallenberg was so eager to get started that he "left in a hell of a hurry with no instructions and no funds," Olsen cabled Washington. At the Hungarian border, he saw boxcars crowded with Jews bound for what the Germans called "labor camps." The U.S. government had known of the death camps since 1942, and Allied intelligence knew that the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry, Europe's last large Jewish community, had begun two months earlier, with freight trains carrying 12,000 people a day to Auschwitz.

Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9 with a revolver in his knapsack. In a few months, he became a local legend, spending covertly supplied American funds and using Swedish diplomatic tools to save Jews. He issued "certificates of protection" with the emblem of the Swedish crown. He moved his charges into buildings he bought or rented and flew the Swedish flag over them for protection. In October, he joined other neutral diplomats such as Switzerland's to persuade the new, rabidly Nazi Hungarian regime to set up an "international ghetto" for 33,000 Jews, 7,000 of them with papers known as "Wallenberg passports." Jokingly, people called him the city's No. 1 landlord.

At first, he worried that if he granted too many protective papers, they would become meaningless. But he soon began issuing them with abandon as Hungarian Nazis combed the city where more than 300,000 Jews lived, many with false identity papers or hidden by gentiles. He granted far more passes than the Hungarian government had agreed to. He ignored their protests about forgeries. Matching the Nazis' energy in killing Jews, Wallenberg would go daily to the ghetto and to collection points such as brickyards and train stations. "When he dealt with the Nazis, Raoul was another person," says Anger. "That soft-spoken man became aggressive, brutal." He bullied Nazi officers, claiming he had a list of Swedish-protected Jews who had to be released to his custody. He'd shout out common Jewish names and quick-witted Jews in the crowd would figure out his ruse and line up behind him to be led to safety.

BROADER MISSION Hungarian and German officials warned Wallenberg to stop. On orders from Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, the SS arranged an "accident" that totaled his Studebaker. Wallenberg was not in it. During a dinner with the Swede, Eichmann vowed to try again. Wallenberg just smiled and became more emboldened. According to one report, Wallenberg even "rounded up weapons for the small band of Jewish resistance fighters in Budapest."

While browbeating some Nazis, Wallenberg bribed others, using funds from the U.S. War Refugee Board (WRB), which the newly declassified files show had an intimate connection with U.S. spy operations. According to a senior CIA official, the choice of Wallenberg combined OSS Chief William Donovan's two articles of faith about intelligence: Businessmen make the best operatives, and refugees are the best sources of information. OSS cabled its Stockholm station that Hungary would be the first of many joint ventures by the two agencies.

Olsen himself worked for both the OSS and the WRB. "Olsen went to Stockholm to crunch numbers for OSS," says Meredith Hindley, an American University graduate student specializing in the WRB and the OSS. "In charge of currency operations, he realized that buying currency from refugees helped him pick up intelligence. He accepted the WRB job and made good use of it for OSS."

Beyond his efforts to save Jews, Wallenberg seems to have had a broader OSS mandate to collect field intelligence. Thomas Veres, the photographer he hired, recalled in an interview with U.S. News that during Budapest's siege, with shells flying from all directions, Wallenberg drove to Castle Hill to observe Russian gun positions on nearby hills, and asked Veres to take pictures of them.

Hungarian documentation shows that Wallenberg used flattery as well as intimidation to get German and Hungarian officials to protect the ghettos and release Jews picked up by Nazi thugs. In the last days of the city's siege, he had a Hungarian Nazi assigned to police headquarters tell an SS general to call off a massacre of 70,000 Jews in the central ghetto. He sought out many influential Hungarians, including members of the resistance, who were not involved in saving Jews. His objective seemed to reflect OSS Chief Donovan's directive that spies seek out locals unsympathetic to Nazis. The goal: to immobilize 18 German divisions in the Balkans.

Key resource. The need for OSS officers to penetrate Hungary is a recurrent theme in just-disclosed OSS files; one expert called it one of the war's toughest intelligence problems. OSS official history notes the failure of three missions. "OSS did not have an active penetration team in Hungary at war's end," recalls James McCargar, an intelligence specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in 1946. Under such circumstances, Wallenberg was a key resource for the OSS. He could exchange coded messages via Stockholm, use the diplomatic pouch--sent as often as every second day--and work with resistance leaders.

One message was from the SI--for Secret Intelligence--section of the OSS in Bari, Italy, to its headquarters on Nov. 7, 1944. The communication indicated that Wallenberg was working with Hungarian resistance leaders right before a planned uprising against the Hungarian Nazi regime. The leader of a second resistance group, Geza Soos, was trying to broker a separate peace with Allied officials. The spy cable notes that Soos, who slept in a different bedroom almost every night, "may be contacted only" via the Swedish legation and that Wallenberg "will know if he is not in Budapest." Soos sent messages to Stockholm, which shared them with Olsen, who apparently forwarded them to Washington. A traitor betrayed the group planning the uprising, and Soos's effort also fell apart once the Germans arrested Hungary's head of state, Miklos Horthy.

Over the years, U.S. officials have maintained that Wallenberg worked for the WRB, not the OSS--and thus was not a spy. Nevertheless, the name Wallenberg appears on the roster of those who "worked for OSS in one capacity or another," as one archivist explains. It is a two-volume computer printout of some 2,000 names, kept in the National Archives. Another archivist cautions that being listed "does not absolutely mean that the person worked for the OSS," though "the great majority" were OSS officers, agents and assets. "The printout is the closest thing we have to an OSS roster."

Asserts one former OSS officer: "Wallenberg was not on the OSS payroll." He spent WRB money but did not take a U.S. salary, "thus technically, he was not an OSS agent." But OSS clearly was instrumental in placing him where he was and received assistance from him in a variety of intelligence areas in his quest to both save Jews and fight Nazis. Whether he was an espionage "agent" by today's definition--contractually engaged and remunerated--mattered little at the time. "OSS people and others who fought that war on the intelligence front would have laughed at our efforts now to distinguish between an agent who got paid and someone who helped us out, inspired by his beliefs," says ex-CIA official Jameson. After reviewing the declassified files, Jameson says he has no doubt that the Swede was "an important American intelligence asset, rare in that part of the world at that time."

THE CAPTURE "The Soviets doubtless knew Olsen's OSS affiliation," says McCargar, a Russia specialist. "They must have known of his meetings with Wallenberg." That made Wallenberg a marked man.

As the Red Army marched into Budapest, Wallenberg insisted that he be taken to headquarters. After spending the night there, he went to collect papers to take to a meeting with the Soviet high command. The following day he drove to the international ghetto, escorted by three Soviet soldiers on a motorcycle equipped with a sidecar. He saw a few of his proteges, still wearing yellow stars, venturing outside. He ran into Laszlo Peto--a childhood friend from a Swiss summer camp--and told him he planned to go to Debrecen, the regional Soviet headquarters, to ask for food and medicine for the ghetto, and would return in a week.

"He was supremely confident," remembers Peto, reached at his home in Brazil. "He quipped about not being sure if he was the Russians' guest or prisoner. But that was a joke. He could have escaped easily." Nothing is known about what happened in Debrecen--or if he ever got there. By late January, he was in Moscow's Lubyanka prison.

Testimony by Nazi prisoners offers what little certainty exists in the next chapter of the Wallenberg saga. Wallenberg's cellmate Gustav Richter told Swedish officials the Swede had traveled for five days by train from Hungary to Moscow, writing notes the Soviets later confiscated and may have used for the espionage case against him. The seizure of the papers upset Wallenberg. In a 1993 interview with University of Chicago Prof. Marvin Makinen, Richter said that Wallenberg told him the notes were for a novel about espionage. Why would he act so recklessly, creating evidence against himself? Makinen, a consultant to the official Swedish-Russian commission focusing on Wallenberg, believes the purpose was to record information, perhaps by using code in the text.

GULAG WITNESSES After July 1947--the date the Russians claim he died--the official documentary trail goes cold. Eyewitness and secondhand reports, however, have placed Wallenberg in the Soviet Union decades after that date. The location repeatedly cited: Vladimir prison, 120 miles northeast of Moscow.

From German POWs jailed there and repatriated in the early 1950s came word of prisoner Wallenberg. Neither prison records nor personnel files confirm his presence. Recently, however, U.S. News tracked down a new and highly credible witness who has identified one prisoner as Wallenberg. She is a cleaning woman named Varvara Larina, who has worked at the prison since 1945.

The now 72-year-old woman was shown photographs of five men the same age as Wallenberg at the time of his internment, and when asked to point out anyone she recalled, she placed her finger firmly on the face of the Swede. She remembers him not by name but by cell number--49--where he was held in isolation. He is locked in her memory as a chronic complainer. "He was tall, had dark hair, was growing bald, " she said in a two-hour interview with U.S. News that was striking for the consistency of her story, though she was unclear about dates. "He was always scolding. Always unhappy." Larina recalls leaving his soup on the cell-door ledge. The prisoner with the brooding eyes would declare the soup too cold and demand to see the guard, or a high prison official.

Kicking up a storm and asking to see supervisors is an effective gambit for prisoners, notes Makinen, himself in Vladimir from 1961 to 1963. While there, Makinen heard of a Swedish inmate called "Vandenberg." Makinen interviewed Larina two years ago and found her so convincing that he urged Russian officials to contact her. To date, her testimony has not been officially recorded.

Another post-1947 sighting confirmed by U.S. News was in the Siberian camp of Bratsk. After his repatriation to Poland, one inmate, Boguslaw Baj, read a newspaper report about Russian declarations of Wallenberg's death in 1947 and recognized the name and face. Baj died recently, but his testimony is preserved in a documentary film by Lechoslaw Czolnowski. Baj recalls befriending a Swede who said his name was Wallenberg and that he had been arrested in Budapest. "We talked pretty often," Baj says. "We even wanted to take him into our Polish brigade, where he would have felt better than among the Russians, who laughed at him because he spoke no Russian." But the camp commander refused.

Baj's friend Jozef Kowalski recalls first meeting Wallenberg at a Polish Wigilya--Christmas Eve service--held clandestinely at the camp. A Polish priest said a prayer, and the assembled sang carols. During a 1950 rail transfer of prisoners, Kowalski says, Wallenberg sat near him, but was taken off the transport before its final destination. Kowalski, Baj and a third Home Army veteran, Jerzy Cichocki, have all separately picked out Wallenberg from an array of photographs.

SOVIET RESPONSE The Soviets never commented on specific sightings, nor did they ever openly discuss the premise that Wallenberg lived on. Col. Vladimir Vinogradov, chief archivist for the Russian Security Service--the renamed KGB--asserts that the sightings have been analyzed "very thoroughly. If one were to take them seriously, Wallenberg was kept in practically every camp in the Soviet Union. It is absurd."

A joint Russian-Swedish commission on Wallenberg, created in 1991, received some 500 pages of documents, mostly chaff. Such basic records as his interrogation protocols are missing. Crucially, there is no death certificate and no report attesting to his cremation. A prison registry logging deaths, suicides and discipline violations does not mention Wallenberg on the alleged date of his death, though it lists a suicide attempt by a female prisoner. Another official log says no one by the name of Wallenberg was cremated at that time.

Vinogradov told U.S. News that the lack of primary source material is probably due to a desperate attempt to destroy documents and escape blame after Stalin ordered the 1951 arrest of Viktor Abakumov, his minister for state security and the official most closely linked to Wallenberg's imprisonment.

Experts familiar with Soviet archives dispute this claim. "All the statements of the security service that they don't possess any information are certainly untrue," asserts Anatoly Prokopenko, the former head of Russia's central archives. Noting the Soviet mania for producing documents and sending copies to other institutions, Anger dismisses with a thunderous "Never!" the possibility that the Wallenberg file was destroyed.

After the failed August 1991 coup that precipitated the Soviet Union's end, President Boris Yeltsin created a special Russian commission to study the Wallenberg case and dispatched its members to secret KGB archives outside Moscow. "Everything was in perfect order," recalls a team member. But the probe was short-lived, and soon even government researchers had to abandon leads. One commission member says he saw the file on Mikhail Tolstoy-Kutuzov, the Russian in Budapest suspected of being the Soviet agent who first fingered Wallenberg. That file should explain the arrest, he says, but he never had a chance to read it. Guy von Dardel, Wallenberg's half brother, asked to see the file, but the KGB has told U.S. News it no longer exists.

One Swedish diplomat familiar with the case says that out of the hundred some witnesses interviewed by his government, up to 15 remain "believable." Particularly striking is the testimony of the late Nana Svartz, a prominent Swedish psychiatrist, who was given information about Wallenberg--alive but mentally ill--in the 1960s. During a Moscow conference, Alexander Myasnikov, a Soviet cardiologist, told Svartz the Swedish diplomat was in a mental hospital outside Moscow and in poor health. But when Sweden sent the Soviets a query, Myasnikov denied his statement, contending misunderstanding. Susan Mesinai, whose Danbury, Connecticut-based organization Ark searches for foreign prisoners in the gulag, says the report on Wallenberg's mental breakdown is credible. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had just announced the 1947 death date in a 1957 memo to Sweden, and Wallenberg may have thought his country and family had stopped looking for him. "If Raoul was told he'd been declared dead, he would have b

In 1989, on the eve of a visit by Wallenberg's kin, the Soviets surprised them by handing over his personal effects, including passport, money, a daybook and a permit to carry a pistol--but not the notes for his novel or his personal papers. The belongings had suddenly been discovered, the Soviets claimed, when a worker happened upon a plain envelope in a storage room. The chain of events was so unconvincing that von Dardel demanded a probe of his half brother's fate.

Ambassador Anger told U.S. News that he urged Chancellor Helmut Kohl to intervene in 1989. Holding an extension phone, Anger listened as Kohl called Mikhail Gorbachev and pleaded "let that old man go." The Russian had no answer, says Anger, who then went to Moscow to appeal personally to the Soviet leader: "He showed no interest" and "implied that he had no control over the KGB."

Wallenberg's tragedy was that the governments that should have rescued him had reasons not to come clean. Worried about undermining its claim of neutrality, Sweden would not concede that it let U.S. intelligence use one of its diplomats. A senior CIA official recalls "some talk" in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the United States should initiate a swap. But the idea was dropped because of fear that an offer would vindicate Moscow in its charge that he was a U.S. agent. The Soviets scoffed at the U.S. denial.

One declassified document is a 1981 article in a CIA publication in which a CIA officer criticized agency silence in the Wallenberg affair. The author, whose name is inked out, mentions that in 1979 the State Department accepted "partial responsibility for Wallenberg's fate by admitting in a so-called 'non-paper' presented to the Soviet charge in Washington that the U.S. had provided funds for the program to save Hungarian Jews." But State failed to reveal, the CIA officer noted, that Wallenberg's contact in Stockholm, Olsen, worked for the OSS.

In 1990, senior CIA official Henhoeffer warned the director that in the years to come, the CIA would be taken to task because the OSS connection gave the Soviets a pretext for imprisoning Wallenberg. Nevertheless, he concluded, "It should be deeply satisfying to every American intelligence officer that not only American funds but, at least indirectly, American intelligence expertise helped to save some Jews from the Holocaust."

EPILOGUE: TRADING TRUTHS Washington may one day declassify files that will reveal whether Wallenberg volunteered for assignments in addition to the rescue mission or whether the OSS pressed him into service on other fronts. Similarly, the Russians may eventually divulge the reasons for keeping him hidden in prison: Did they hope to ransom him to the West? Or was their delay bureaucratic bungling?

Whatever the reasons for both sides' intransigence, they have vanished now, and a deal could be struck to get at the truth: America could acknowledge all that he did on behalf of U.S. intelligence and the Russians could make known his fate. Such a trade-off would not be justice, but it would end the mystery surrounding a rare, soul-soothing Holocaust legend.