Alan Lelchuk’s Searching for Wallenberg Explores History’s Dark Unknowns
Alan Lelchuk’s novel, Searching for Wallenberg, tackles the mysteries surrounding the arrest of the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Budapest in 1944-45. Through history professor Manny Gellerman’s quest for the truth about what happened to Raoul Wallenberg and his discovery that Wallenberg’s daughter might be living in Budapest, Lelchuk explores the outstanding questions in the Wallenberg case. Did he die in Lybianka prison in Moscow in 1947 or live on in some gulag camp or psychiatric hospital? Why wasn’t he exchanged by the Swedish government or rescued by his wealthy, well-connected family in Stockholm? And, most intriguingly, what motivated Wallenberg to save more than 100,000 lives over a six-month period by providing Swedish schutzpassn (passports) to Jews, making them citizens of neutral Sweden so they would not suffer the fate of the camps?
The genesis of the book came to Lelchuk while he was living in Budapest and teaching at ELTE University in 1999. ‘Every few days I found myself walking past the impressive statue of Wallenberg, bronze and austere, staring ahead. I found him intriguing, and began to read up on him, and ask some questions.’ Not interested in writing a conventional historical novel, Lelchuk crafted what he calls a ‘docu-novel’, a hybrid work of fiction based on history. ‘I didn’t want it to be controlled by facts, or simply recreate the facts. On the contrary, I wanted freedom from the known “facts” at the same time that I wanted to be respectful of the known history.’
Lelchuk plays with history by imagining encounters between Wallenberg and Gellerman, as well as episodes in Wallenberg’s life—as an architecture student at the University of Michigan in 1935, rescuing Jews about to be loaded onto trains in Budapest, or being interrogated in prison after his arrest. Ironically, Lelchuk’s research led him to make history when he became the first Westerner to meet with Wallenberg’s KGB interrogator, Daniel Pagliansky in 2003, an actual scene he set in the novel.
Wallenberg’s daughter (Zsusanna) and granddaughter (Dora) are imaginary characters in SFW, though, as Lelchuk explains, they are ‘based loosely on composites of several women I had met in Budapest. There is a kind of Wallenberg cult that exists in places like Budapest; they continue to follow his “whereabouts,” almost seventy years later, in sightings and past traces. So Wallenberg bubbles up in little geysers of history and memory, and projections around the globe.’
There are no clear answers as to what happened to Wallenberg, but by the end of the novel the reader feels some sense of closure. Through the 10 to 12 years Lelchuk spent researching and writing Searching for Wallenberg, he fills the gaps in the history by bringing Wallenberg’s perspective to life. ‘Because of my fictional license and my long research, I was able to give Raoul himself a voice, a living ghost’s voice, to tell of his side of things.’ In a letter that Wallenberg purportedly wrote before his death he says, ‘Mine was not a kindly fate, but a truly lived life, offering big challenges and affording a few personal victories. Adding all things up, I am grateful. Even satisfied.’
Lelchuk is currently working on a play about Wallenberg.
About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is a writer living in Geneva, Switzerland. She is working on a novel set in 17th-century China during the early days of the Qing Dynasty.