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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The Jewish Book Council, Visiting Scribe Series: My Wallenberg Education in Budapest, Stockholm, and Moscow

Wednesday, May 06, 2015| Permalink

Traveling to various destination and sites, meeting participants and witnesses, searching archives, led me to get a feel of the different cultures, and fill in the puzzle of R. Wallenberg. In Stockholm for example, I experienced the world of the proud if icy Swedes, a conservative, private people. And I felt the elegance of their orderly town, the wonderful mahogany interiors (of restaurants, municipal buildings), the curved city library, and the narrow cobblestone streets. I could see where Wallenberg had sketched some of his future architectural plans and his interest in developing the quay area. Importantly, I met in the Lindingo suburb home of a friend, a seventyish gentleman who had been in the Officer Training Corps with the young Wallenberg, who told me a story which contributed significantly to my understanding of my protagonist. When they were together in the north of Sweden for their officer camp training, the Commanding Officer disciplined a young soldier for some violation of rules, demeaning him in front of the group of twenty. When he did this, another young officer stepped forward, identified himself (Raoul Wallenberg), and said he objected to the humiliation of his fellow trainee, calling it “unprofessional.” The officer in charge was shocked at this breach of authority, stared at the young rebel, and decided to pull back from his severe punishment. “Everyone of us saw what sort of man this young officer was, not afraid of authority,” my old witness said, and how this RW was, brave, unorthodox, fearless. The small group of young officers was impressed. And for me, that characteristic of the youthful Wallenberg never left my sights as I was composing my character.

At the elegant Stockholm Municipal Building where I went to search for archive files of interest, I was given three CD’s—Raoul Wallenberg, 1945-70, Dossier P2 Eu—by the efficient archivist. These were innocuous enough documents of diplomatic notes, etc. But when I sought the more revealing and more relevant diplomatic notes between the Government of Sweden and the Soviet Union, and those between the Foreign Ambassador of Sweden and his counterparts in SU, during those crucial years of 1945-47, I was told they were off-limits still, some fifty-five years after the events. The cordial archivist shook his head, smiled sympathetically and offered, “I know, I know. One day perhaps….” So I understood that beneath the order, the elegance and the courtesy, there lurked shadows and secrets that were waiting to be disclosed if unearthed. In other words, something was rotten in the state of Sweden.

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The Jewish Book Council, Visiting Scribe Series: Meeting Pagliansky in Moscow

Monday, May 04, 2015 | Permalink

Meeting Daniel Pagliansky in 2003, the KGB interrogator of Wallenberg in 1945-47, was like meeting a soul from Hades. He was a bag of bones in his late 80’s, but his eyes were fierce and his determination steely, and he banged the desk with his fist as though it were a gavel. He yelled at me when he entered the study where I was standing with my interpreter and his son, asked how dare I visit when told explicitly not to! I shivered inwardly at his mad ferocity in his advanced age, but stayed cool and said nothing, letting him beat me up verbally. I knew I was meeting history incarnate here, a Soviet Officer and KGB interrogator who had never before met with a Westerner.

I had heard about the infamous fellow from Nikita Petrov, my friend and guide from Memorial House in Moscow, who had written articles and a book about the KGB, and knew all about its history, rules, protocols. In fact he had warned me, “You will never get to meet with him, you see he won’t even meet up with the FSB who have invited him to speak with them about what went on back then, with Wallenberg, with full immunity in case he needed that.” So Nikita was quite amazed when the meeting occurred, and when I explained to him how it had happened, he nodded. (“Yes, only by crazy chance!”) Here’s what happened. My interpreter and I had called several times, and Pagliansky had politely enough refused, saying he was too ill. But ten days before my leaving Moscow, we were up at Pushkinskaya, a famous square in central Moscow, and we called again, since I knew it was a short walk from his apartment. This time his son answered and said, in Russian to my interpreter, “An American writer? Sure, come on over, Dad is having lunch with mother now, but they will be finished soon.” Rather excited, my fingers crossed, we walked the fifteen minutes to his apartment block, found the apartment, and were greeted cordially by this tall hefty fellow, Gyorgi, the son, a man of about 55. He took our coats and called out to his father in the next room that I was here, the American writer, but then his father yelled back, in Russian, “Why did you let him in! I told him not to come!” But Gyorgi only smiled to us, said father would calm down, just take it easy, and escorted us into father’s study. He asked what I wanted to talk about, I said the World War II era, I was writing a novel about it, and maybe Wallenberg. Gyorgi shook his head, “No, you mustn’t ask him about that, or he will throw you out immediately! Please.” I nodded, and was left to regard the wide oak desk with the glass top covering numerous photos underneath it, and the bookshelves, filled with books in German, Russian, and English. I was tempted to take the small photo of the youthful Pagliansky, handsome in his Soviet officer’s uniform, but instead gazed at the bookshelves, astonished to find Brooklyn leftie writers of the 1930's like Daniel Fuchs and Michel Gold, as well as Howard Fast. How and why did he collect these hard to find writers?

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