IN DECEMBER OF 1944 and January of 1945, Buda pest was a chamber of horrors. From without, American and British bombers attacked the city constantly. From within, Jewish residents of the city were beaten, tortured and murdered by SS troopers, Nazi soldiers and members of the Hungarian "Arrow Cross," an especially virulent band of homegrown Fascists; Gentile residents did not fare much better, for the food supply was rapidly vanishing and living conditions were abominable.

Yet as a survivor of that brutal time now recalls, "In the complete and total hell in which we lived, there was a savior-angel somewhere, moving around." This survivor, who was 13 at the time, recalls hearing that person's name:

"One morning, a group of these Hungarian Fascists came into the house and said all the able-bodied women must go with them. We knew what this meant. My mother kissed me and I cried and she cried. We knew we were parting for ever and she left me there, an orphan to all intents and purposes. Then, two or three hours later, to my amazement, my mother returned with the other women. It seemed like a mirage, a miracle. My mother was there-- she was alive and she was hugging me and kissing me, and she said one word: 'Wallenberg.'"

Raoul Wallenberg was 32 years old, a representative of the neutral Swedish government; his specific mission was to use whatever means were at hand to rescue as many Jews as possible from the Final Solution. He performed this task with an ardor and effectiveness that nearly defy description and then, in the hour of his triumph, mysteriously disappeared--seized, it later turned out, by the conquering Russian troops as he approached them on an errand of mercy, then spirited back to Moscow, and finallly thrust into the labyrinthine passages of the Gulag Archipelago.

It is possible that he is there yet--that the Russian claim that he died of a heart attack in 1947 is, like virtually everything else the Kremlin has had to say about Wallenberg, a transparent lie. If that indeed is the case, if Wallenberg has been a guiltless prisoner for more than half his life, the Russian state has perpetrated a gross, unconscionable injustice. And as one of Wallenberg's admirers told John Bierman: "It is a bitter irony that because of his fate Wallenberg is becoming a symbol of injustice rather than being celebrated as a symbol of humanity because of his deeds."

Righteous Gentile is the first book about Wallenberg to appear in the United States; a second will appear early next year. This small burst of publishing activity may well focus attention on Wallenberg in this country as nothing else has. If that actually happens, the book as well as its subject will merit the attention; Bierman has written a careful, literate and quietly passionate account that does both honor and justice to Wallenberg.

Raoul Wallenberg was born in 1912 into an exceptionally wealthy and influential Gentile family. There was little in either his background or personality to suggest the role he would assume in Budapest; his half-sister describes him as "definitely not the square-jawed hero type, more an anti-hero." As a young man he was dominated by his grandfather, who wanted him to go into business and thwarted his dream of becoming an architect; he seemed, for all his ability and charm, destined to live out his life in comfort, without inspiration or challenge.

World War II changed that. Though Sweden scrupulously maintained its neutrality, its government resolved late in the war "to extend the protection of the Swedish crown to as many as possible of Hungary's Jews." When Wallenberg was offered the assignment, he leaped at it. Instantly, it seems, his life had acquired meaning.

He arrived in Budapest in July 1944. Adolph Eichmann was already there. In two months, he had deported 437,402 Jewish men, women and children from the Hungarian provinces: "Now, apart from several thousand able-bodied Jewish males serving in the labor battalions of the Hungarian army, there remained only 230,000 terrified Jews trapped in the capital." Six months later, when Russian troops took Budapest, 120,000 Jews were still alive--"the only substantial Jewish community left in Europe." Most if not all of them owed their lives to the Gentile from Stockholm.

The source of Wallenberg's passion may be a mystery, but the effect of it is not. He swept through Budapest like a one-man army of peace: he distributed thousands of Swedish passports to endangered Jews, he bluffed Fascist officers into surrendering their Jewish captives, and he so vexed Eichmann that at last he screeched: "I will kill that Jew-dog Wallenberg!" The number of lives he directly saved is put at between 30,000 and 100,000; the psychological effect he had on the Jewish populace, appearing as he did as a "savior-angel," is simply incalculable. A friend recalls:

"He never tired and was at work day and night. He saved human lives, traveled, bargained, threatened the interruption of diplomatic relations, was in consultation with the Hungarian government--in short, achieved something that makes him a sort of legendary figure."

The legend is even larger, among those familiar with it, because of his disappearance into the Gulag. It is difficult to imagine a crueler, more mindless irony than that the "savior-angel" of Budapest's Jews should himself become a victim, a prisoner of the monstrous and paranoid Soviet state. Whatever happened to him after 1945 is, as Bierman explains in useful detail, the fault of many--blunders by Sweden and the United States, indifference in Hungary and Israel. But the villain is the Soviet Union; after arresting Wallenberg, evidently on the mistaken impression that he was a spy, the Kremlin not only refused to acknowledge its error and free him, but also compounded that error into bleak farce by consigning him to the bowels of the Gulag.

In all this terrible injustice there is, to be sure, a certain undeniable poetic justice. The disappearance of Wallenberg after performing such heroic deeds not only elevates life into art--the story is much better this way --but also elevates Wallenberg himself into something approximating sainthood. He achieved a heroism beyond the imagination of most humans, and then he was punished. But perhaps the publication of this book will at last begin the process of restoring him to the world's attention, and granting him the honor he so passionately earned.