WWII author pairs a hero and a monster

“The Envoy” by Alex Kershaw


It is 1944 and on World War II’s eastern front in Budapest, Hungary, Allied bombs are falling and the Russians are coming-because Germany is now on the losing side of the war. Two men who will become icons of the Holocaust are negotiating with one another, even having dinner together, and passionately working-at cross-purposes. One man, Adolf Eichmann, who, in country after country, has been a chief functionary of the Final Solution, is now trying with all possible speed to annihilate some 725,00 refugee and native Hungarian Jews. And one man, Raoul Wallenberg, is trying with all possible speed to save them.

Alex Kershaw has authored two New York Times bestsellers about WWII, “The Bedford Boys” and “The Longest Winter.” His newest book “The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Moments of World War II” (294 pgs., De Capo Press, $26) spotlights Eichmann and Wallenberg plus other Shoah personalities-like Rudolph Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz expressly to warn Hungary’s Jews, and Rudolph Kasztner who was later denounced as a Nazi collaborator-the Arrow Cross, a corps of Jew-hating thugs, and a handful of Jewish survivors whom Wallenberg personally rescued.

The book might have been titled “Budapest, 1944” or “Eichmann and Wallenberg.” But, as a marketing strategy, it seems, it is titled as if it is about Wallenberg alone. Also, the title seems to suggest a single event, like the parting of the Red Sea or the landing at Entebbe, by which Wallenberg saved all of Hungary’s Jews.

Few would argue that Raoul Wallenberg was less than a selfless hero. Oscar Schindler saved one thousand Jews. Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews. Recruited by FDR’s War Refugees Board, he was dispatched to Hungary, a few weeks shy of age 32, as a diplomat of Sweden, a neutral country.


Wallenberg immediately began distributing impressively printed, color documents that demonstrated the bearer was under the protection of the Swedish flag. Then copying the example of a Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz, Wallenberg bought buildings as Jewish safe houses.

Wallenberg was also known for acts of sheer bravado. He would arrive at-the-scene, flourishing a black book, calling out common Jewish surnames and encouraging people to step forward. He would take any piece of paper as proof of Swedish protection, thus saving Jews from momentary deportation by train.

But Wallenberg made no singular, heroic gesture by which the Jews of Hungary, or even Budapest were rescued. By July, 1944, when Wallenberg arrived, a Reich official reported to Berlin: during seven weeks, on 148 trains, over 430,000 Jews have been deported from Hungary’s provinces. Another 230,000 Jews were then stranded in Budapest. Of those, Wallenberg may have saved as many as 100,000.

There’s a newish, chic term for Kershaw’s book: derivative. “Derivative” (although not plagiarized), because Kershaw’s portrait of Eichmann and Wallenberg is a collage (slightly random) culled from other histories without further analysis or insight. About Eichmann’s escape and capture, preferable to Kershaw’s is Neal Bascomb’s riveting account in  “Hunting Eichmann” (Although both writers are vague about Eichmann’s general history during WWII and his responsibilities as the director of Department IVB4 for Jewish affairs).

In the balance: the book does include some original sources, personal interviews with the survivors, such as Erwin Koranyi and Alice Breuer who was twice saved by Wallenberg. And Kershaw, though not an historian, sociologist, or psychologist, writes like a journalist, competently and readably. The author has brought together what people said and did to create a dramatic portrait of a particular time and place.

There could be the beginnings of a movie script here, with a sad ending. Among Kershaw’s interviews are those with Wallenberg’s half-sister, Nina Lagergren, who, at age 89, is still grieving, but too weary for the fight. Eichmann’s end-captured, convicted, executed, scattered at sea-is well-known. Wallenberg’s fate is still a mystery. Under murky circumstances, he was made a Soviet prisoner immediately after the war, and much later announced dead at age 34 from a heart attack. We can only hope that continuing interest will at last coax out the truth of what happened to Raoul Wallenberg.