The Bookshelf: Searching for Raoul Wallenberg

Jun 12, 2015

The Bookshelf is NHPR's new series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello will interview authors, cover literary events and publishing trends, and get recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email - the address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Dartmouth professor Alan Lelchuk, whose novel, Searching For Wallenberg, seeks answers to lingering questions about the disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg is famous for having saved thousands of Jews in Budapest in the closing years of World War II. In 1945 he was arrested by the Soviets and is believed to have died in a prison, but questions about how and when he died still linger. Take a listen to Lelchuk's conversation with NHPR's Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his five book recommendations.

Alan's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.    Summer by Edith Wharton. “A beautiful, small work, unlike Wharton’s other works.”

2.    “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov. “Chekhov is maybe the greatest story writer and one of the most unusual playwrights, and he knows different aspects of life, from the lower to the middle to the upper, and a variety of persons for whom he has huge compassion, and he’s able to bring out the truth behind clichés in whatever he writes about.”

3.    “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. “She’s an original voice. After Faulkner, our best southern writer, and a great writer of short works. The good thing about both [Chekhov and O’Connor], they didn’t try to write beyond their genre. They didn’t attempt novels and fail. They were both very content to put their wisdom and craft in shorter forms. I think people are more distracted today than they were in the 19th century, so it’s easier to read Chekhov and O’Connor and not be daunted by it.”

4.    Drifting House by Krys Lee. “Remarkable in its innovation and honesty.”

5.    Herzog by Saul Bellow. “A great reading experience. Not so easy the first time around, but when you do it the second or third time around, it gets richer and richer.”

Who was Raoul Wallenberg?

Ostensibly and manifestly he was a young Swedish fellow who joined the diplomatic corps at around age 33 and was given the assignment when he went over to see if he could help the Jews, but it wasn’t his primary assignment. But once he got there, he found it as his calling, as his mission, to start saving Jews. He’d come from a very, very wealthy family in Sweden. The Wallenberg family is still the wealthiest family. They’re like the Rockefellers, perhaps. And the family was not at all interested in what Raoul was doing or even in Raoul, because he was a maverick and a kind of outlaw to the family. So this new enterprise of his, which is saving the Jews who were being slaughtered at a rate of about 30,000 or 40,000 a day, was completely foreign to him. And they kept their distance, which is why, when he was finally arrested and lingered in Lubyanka jail for two years, they made no attempt to trade for him, exchange him, just as the Swedish government made no attempt. And so for two years this young, noble hero languished in this terrible Soviet prison, Lubyanka.

How did he go about saving the Jews?

He invented a way of creating false passports for them called “safe passes,” and he had great help from his chauffeur, a young, strapping Jewish Hungarian whose family he had saved from a work camp. And by creating these safe passes, he would go to places where there were deporting Jews—railway stations, bus stations, etc. And he would produce these safe passes with his diplomat card and say, “These Jews will be going to Sweden, and here are the passes for them,” and he created two large apartment buildings in the center of Budapest and he began putting these Jewish families, the ones that he was saving, into these two huge buildings, which wound up occupying at a particular time between 10,000 and 15,000 Jews. That was the primary way he saved them.

What drew you to him as a character?

I was teaching in Budapest in 2001 and 2002 and there was a sculpture of him, which first drew me to him, although I had known about him since childhood, and the more I found out about him, the more he was an extremely interesting character. And there were many mysteries about him and mysteries about his case, if you will, that suited me perfectly because I’m a novelist, not an historian, and what I began to see was that fiction could fill in the gaps and the spaces in history that the historians were unable to do, and are unable to do. So it gave me a kind of free license to explore sides of his character which I learned about through reading about him, through going to Michigan where he spent three years in architectural school, through his letters to his grandfather. Part of the raison d’etre in the book is to give Wallenberg, who is a ghost in the book, his voice. And so he has conversations with my other protagonist, who is a professor of history at Dartmouth College, and in these conversations, Wallenberg reveals aspects of his character, which are grounded in the history that I knew about. So it was one layer of another layer in this World War II mystery story, both of his character and his identity, along with what he went through, what he suffered.

Where was the line for you, writing fiction about a historical figure? How did you decide when it was okay to start making stuff up?

That line, which is usually rather firm—or let me begin again. That line, which is often crossed by historians themselves when they don’t know a particular piece of the territory, with me it was much easier because I have freedom with the license of being a fiction writer, to cross the line, but within the novel itself, my alter ego, if you will, this professor Gellerman, starts writing his own scenes, which are fictional scenes, which he tells the reader, “These are fictional scenes, this is the way I’d like to get into the history.” So what you have is a kind of counter-narrative within the book, which is his own version of the historical reality, which is announced to the reader. So the reader can have his own determination, his own choice of how well he’s doing this, So you have this historical narrative going forward, although it’s not a historical novel at all, it’s more of a detective thriller. Not a whodunit, but a mystery story on several levels. So this second protagonist, Gellerman, is trying to search for the answers and he has to use the means of fiction to get at what he imagines to be the historical truth, because hard evidence is often lacking at crucial times in the story.