It is a bitter irony that Raoul Wallenberg is becoming a symbol of injustice because of his fate when he should be a symbol of humanity because of his heroism. Wallenberg's story is as mysterious as it is tragic.

In 1944, when the Nazi defeat was certain, Adolf Eichmann madly pursued the "final solution" by deporting Hungarian Jews to Nazi extermination camps. At the request of the U.S. War Refugee Board, the Swedish government sent Wallenberg to Budapest on a rescue and relief mission. Defying Eichmann, he saved at least 20,000 people from deportation trains and another 70,000 from violent death in the ghetto. His methods were daring and dramatic, and the personal risk was enormous. But Wallenberg seemed to have a charmed life until January 1945, when the Russians entered Budapest and almost immediately took him into custody.

Although previously disclaiming knowledge of Wallenberg, in 1957 the Soviet Foreign Ministry reversed itself, stating that he had died of a heart attack in prison in 1947. Neither the Swedish government nor Wallenberg's family accepted this statement because it came without the usual documents and because his name was misspelled on the single note provided as evidence.

Most Americans who knew about Wallenberg presumed he was dead until released Soviet prisoners claimed he was still alive in the Gulag. These assertions stunned Hungarian-American Jews, among them Rep. Tom Lantos, who was saved by Wallenberg. In July 1979, Lantos and his wife encouraged Wallenberg's sister to come to the United States to seek help. Sens. Frank Church, Claiborne Pell, Daniel P. Moynihan and Rudy Boschwitz agreed to serve as co-chairmen of the Wallenberg Committee, which has operated with a small working group. As our goal was to secure the release of Wallenberg -- not to generate anti-Soviet propaganda -- it was felt that diplomatic and private means of resolving the mystery should be exhausted before any large public campaign was organized.

Official American support was immediate: President Carter raised the Wallenberg question, and the State Department pressed the inquiry. The 96th Congress passed a concurrent resolution honoring Wallenberg and called on our delegation to raise his case at the Madrid Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. In Madrid, Sen. Pell joined the American delegation led by Max M. Kampelman in an appeal for Wallenberg. When the Soviets responded to any of these inquiries, they merely repeated the 1957 statement.

As the Soviets know the prisons and cells in question, the could identify the inmates if, as a Soviet official suggested, former prisoners had mistaken their identity.

There are now active Wallenberg committees in six countries, for people everywhere seem genuinely moved by his story, and the Soviet silence fans public outrage. At international hearings co-sponsored by the International Sakharov committee in Stockholm in January, a panel reviewed evidence and heard testimony regarding Wallenberg's imprisonment. The resolution presented to the Swedish foreign minister stated there was every reason to believe he is still alive.

No public charges have been made against him, and it is not known if Wallenberg, who would now be 69, was actually sentenced. If he was, why couldn't the Soviets commute his term on humanitarian grounds because of his age? Then the world could honor him as he deserves rather than protest his fate. Why would the Soviet government allow the mystery of Raoul Wallenberg to become a divisive international issue?