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The official Soviet story was that Wallenberg died in Soviet custody of a heart attack in 1947. But he would have been just 35, and he had no history of cardiac problems. Further confounding that story were the occasional reports suggesting that he lived for decades afterward. One common story has Wallenberg alive in a Soviet prison until at least 1975.
Just a few days ago, Alexander Yakovlev, Russia's chairman of the presidential commission on rehabilitation of victims of political repression, was quoted as saying, "We do not doubt that he was shot at Lubyanka"—the Soviet secret-police headquarters in Moscow. Though Yakovlev didn't give a date for the execution, many believe it came before Stalin's death in 1953.
"Ultimately, he became a victim of the Cold War," Jensen said. "The Swedes were unwilling to trade Soviet prisoners for him because they claimed they were a neutral country, and neutral countries didn't engage in prisoner exchanges. The Americans didn't want to play into Soviet theories because if they were too interested, that might demonstrate he was indeed an American spy. And the Americans had bigger concerns at stake in the Cold War than a Swedish diplomat. . . . In the early 1970s, [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger was told there was a chance to find Wallenberg, but he declined; they had bigger fish to fry."
Added Jensen, "It's a tremendous irony that no attempt was even made to save the man who saved so many others."
For 55 years, Wallenberg's Budapest colleagues have searched for the truth. His sister, whom Jensen talked to in the course of researching his play, visited the Soviet Union in 1989. There, the Soviets produced Wallenberg's tombstone and personal effects but no body. "She refuses to accept any claim until she sees definitive proof," Jensen said.
Too late for Wallenberg, the U.S. discovered its interest in him in 1981, when Congress granted him the title Honorary Citizen, a distinction awarded to only one other person: Winston Churchill. There is a memorial forest named after him in Jerusalem. The visual image used to denote the category of "Rescuer" at the Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles is Wallenberg's picture.
About five weeks ago, while preparing for Wallenberg, Addison Glines developed a cough. He thought nothing of it. Just a cold. His immune system still hadn't fully recovered from his chemotherapy and radiation regimen. Over the next few weeks, the cough grew worse. Maybe bronchitis?
Then he noticed a slight pulsing behind one eye.
On Nov. 17, he went in for an x-ray. That night, Jensen received the news. The slight but steady cough wasn't bronchitis. It wasn't the lingering effects of an immune system weakened by chemotherapy. It was aggressive, extensive lung cancer.
"You can't imagine how that broke the hearts of everyone here," Jensen explained.
Glines dropped out of the play immediately to begin chemotherapy for the second time in a year. Jensen said his first thought was to cancel the play. Logistically, who could step into Glines' shoes? He'd been involved in the production for nearly two years, since its first public reading in January 1999. Emotionally, how could Jensen, his cast and his crew focus on the production? But Jensen talked to Glines' mother, who told him "the last thing Addison wants is to cancel this play."
Suddenly, the old theatrical clichés—about the show going on, about breaking a leg, about how you gotta have heart—all seemed powerful and real and not worn out at all. Ten days ago, Brian Kojac, a Fullerton College alum and founder of the Stages theater company, was brought in to take the lead. The opening show is sold out, members of the Swedish consulate will be in the audience, and Glines has already made his reservation.
Kojac is a theater animal; if anyone can learn the 76-page script and the demanding character of Wallenberg—which Jensen compares to Shakespeare's Henry V in terms of stage time and presence—it's him. The replacement actually cheered Glines, said Jonathan Infante, a friend and fellow Wallenberg cast member. "When he heard it was Brian, I think a little of his actor's ego came out," Infante said. "He thought he must have done something right because they didn't give the role to just anybody."
"Addison is incredibly focused and talented," said stage manager Erin Coggins. "I don't know if he has a photographic memory, but we found his script, and there wasn't a mark on it. He'd committed all his blocking and notes to memory."
Wallenberg is a play in which the backstage drama is roughly equivalent to the drama onstage. Jensen has received calls, letters and e-mails from around the world from Wallenberg supporters and family—and from those who survived because of him. The production is shot through with uncanny coincidences, Jensen recalls, like the one that happened when his cast visited the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year.
"When you go into the museum, you are given a card that represents a child of the Holocaust," Jensen said. "When you're done, you punch it in a machine, and it gives you a readout of what became of that child. Ninety-five percent of the cards say the child died somewhere. Mine was saved—by Wallenberg."
WALLENBERG at Fullerton College's Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, 321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 992-7294. Opens Fri. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Dec. 10. $8.50-$10.50.