Foreword Reviews: Searching for Wallenberg

– Searching for Wallenberg –
Reviewed by Jeff Fleische, May 27, 2015

The fate of Raoul Wallenberg has remained a mystery for seventy years, and Alan Lelchuk’s novel Searching for Wallenberg uses a fictional investigation to explore the real question of what happened. This is a thoughtful and compelling novel that blends mystery, history, and speculative elements.

The story’s protagonist is Manny Gellerman, a university professor with a longtime interest in the life and disappearance of the Swedish diplomat. During World War II, Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary by issuing protective passports and helping the captives escape, but he himself was captured by the Soviets during their counteroffensive and is presumed to have died in a Soviet prison. One of Gellerman’s students is working on a thesis about Wallenberg’s disappearance. She interviews a woman who claims to be his daughter and has information that might explain what happened.

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Jewish Book Council Review: Searching For Wallenberg - Alan Lelchuk

Review by Donald Weber

In his absorbing new novel Searching for Wallenberg, Alan Lelchuk reflects on the tragedies of modern Jewish history and their present-day legacies through the empathic imagination of Manny Gellerman, a sixty-something professor of History at a New England liberal arts college. Richly drawn and the moral center of the novel, Manny is alert to the foolishness that often characterizes academic life—above all the comedy of aging professors lusting after celebrity (a continuing theme in Lelchuk’s work). Manny, by contrast, cares deeply about his students, and worries about the deformed ethical-political condition of contemporary America in 2006, especially the nation’s ongoing, disastrous war in Iraq. Spry and energetic, “with a glint in his eyes, still swinging” at the plate—Manny often thinks about his boyhood hero, Jackie Robinson, while growing up in his native Brooklyn—Manny feels, nevertheless, somewhat aimless as he approaches the end of his career; he seeks a project to be passionate about, something to awaken, indeed to claim his profoundly moral sensibility.

In Lelchuk’s invention, the awakening takes the form of Manny’s quest to find the “truth” behind the story—and above all the ultimate fate—of Raoul Wallenberg, the legendary Swedish diplomat and “righteous gentile” who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944-1945. Wallenberg, as is well known, distributed Swedish schutzpassn (passports) to Jews, thus making them citizens of neutral Sweden, and immediately liberating them from the fate of the camps, in some instances even handing out schutzpassn to Jews already in trains bound for inevitable death.

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New York Journal of Books: Searching For Wallenberg

Reviewed by: Janet Levine

In Searching for Wallenberg author Alan Lelchuk chooses to work in the well-worn structure of a novel within a novel. He succeeds in breathing more life into Dartmouth College’s Manny Gellerman, history professor cum sleuth, than into the secrets of Swedish diplomat and savior of thousands of Budapest’s Jews toward the end World War Two, Raoul Wallenberg.

As we follow Gellerman on his picaresque journey he writes his own novel on Wallenberg. If this sounds confusing, at times it is, but ultimately the novel is a satisfying read.

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The Jewish Book Council, Visiting Scribe Series: The “Docu-Novel and My Wallenberg Hybrid-Novel

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

In 1956 Meyer Levin wrote Compulsion, a novel about two young thrill killers in Chicago, based on the real life murderers Leopold and Loeb. Levin knew the local story well of the two young men, and observed the trial as a journalist. A popular movie was made from the novel, and Compulsion became the first of what we have named “docu-novels.” This was followed in 1966 by the even more popular In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, which the author considered a non-fiction novel. (Again another Hollywood movie was made from the very realistic book.) This concerned a quadruple murder in Kansas by two killers, and Capote went out to Kansas (with Harper Lee) where they conducted long research, and produced a true crime story that was emphatically fact-based. Next, in 1979, came Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore, a murderer in Utah, a work of some 900 pages based on a some 15,000 interviews done with Gilmore in the last 9 months of his stay on Death Row. Here, very often Mailer employed Gilmore’s actual words from those interviews for his novel. In those books, the facts ruled the day.

Searching for Wallenberg has some of the docu in the novel, but I would prefer to call it a hybrid work. Yes, there is actual documentation it, and also some of Wallenberg’s own words from his writings. The several known historical facts here are documented clearly, based on the reality, as we know it, of chaotic Budapest 1944-45, and Lybianka Prison, Moscow 1945-47. And yes, too, I researched much of the era, especially the climate surrounding the figure of Wallenberg. But what remained, always at the center, was mystery—as in the gaps of history, the gaps in Raoul the man. Hence much of my novelistic journey was consumed by filling in those gaps with a credible, imagined reality. With scenes that were constructed from a known basis, a context of empirical reality—such as, Wallenberg coming from a very rich Swedish family, Wallenberg saving approximately 17,000 thousands Jews directly in Budapest in 1944-45, Wallenberg the Russian prisoner for two whole years in Moscow’s Lybianka prison, Wallenberg the man having no record of any real girlfriends in Michigan or Budapest, or Stockholm for that matter. So therefore my task was to invent scenes that revealed the possible truths behind the facts that we did have, and to create and dramatize the history that we didn’t have. From the empirical to the imagined. Whereas in the docu-novels cited above, the task was to fictionalize those facts in order to bring out the known facts more emphatically, mine was a bit more risky, I’d say, but for different and necessary reasons. And let me add to the hybrid nature by pointing to the making of history itself by my seeing the interrogator Pagliansky and recording that scene in the novel.

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