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May 25, 2017

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Scholars run down more clues to a Holocaust mystery

STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Budapest, November 1944: Another German train has loaded its cargo of Jews bound for Auschwitz. A young Swedish diplomat pushes past the SS guard and scrambles onto the roof of a cattle car.

Ignoring shots fired over his head, he reaches through the open door to outstretched hands, passing out dozens of bogus "passports" that extend Sweden's protection to the bearers. He orders everyone with a document off the train and into his caravan of vehicles. The guards look on, dumbfounded.

Raoul Wallenberg was a minor official of a neutral country, with an unimposing appearance and gentle manner. Recruited and financed by the U.S., he went to Hungary to save Jews. He bullied, bluffed and bribed powerful Nazis to prevent the deportation of 20,000 to concentration camps and avert the massacre of 70,000 more in Budapest's Jewish ghetto.

Then, on Jan. 17, 1945, days after Soviet troops moved into Budapest, the 32-year-old Wallenberg and his Hungarian driver, Vilmos Langfelder, drove off with a Russian security escort, and vanished forever.

Because he was a rare flicker of humanity in the man-made hell of the Holocaust, the world has celebrated him ever since. Streets are named for him. His face has been on postage stamps.

But researchers still wrestle with two enduring mysteries: Why was Wallenberg arrested, and did he really die in Soviet custody in 1947?

And fresh documents are to become public that may cast light on another puzzle: whether Wallenberg was connected, directly or indirectly, to a super-secret U.S. intelligence agency known as "the Pond," operating as World War II was drawing to a close and the Soviets were growing increasingly suspicious of Western intentions in eastern Europe.

Speculation Wallenberg was engaged in espionage has been rife since the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged in the 1990s that he was recruited for his rescue mission by an agent of the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA.

About the Pond, little is known. But later this year the CIA is to turn over to the National Archives a stash of Pond-related papers found in a Virginia barn in 2001. These are the papers of John Grombach, who headed the Pond.

Despite dozens of books and hundreds of documents on Wallenberg, much remains hidden. The Kremlin has failed to find or deliver dozens of files, Sweden has declined to open all its books, and The Associated Press has learned as many as 100,000 pages of declassified OSS documents await processing at the National Archives.

The Russians say Wallenberg died in prison in 1947, but never produced a proper death certificate or his remains.

Independent research suggests he may have lived many years — perhaps to the late 1980s. If true, he likely was held in isolation, stripped of his identity, known only by a number or a false name and moved like a phantom among Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric institutions.

In 1991, the Russian government assigned Vyacheslav Nikonov, deputy head of the KGB intelligence service, to spend months searching classified archives about Wallenberg.

Nikonov's conclusion: "Shot in 1947."

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