A spiritual kind of Olympics: Raoul Wallenberg in America



I seem to be the only person not watching the Olympics today.  So maybe it might be timely to remind everyone of a more spiritual kind of Olympics.  Spoiler: Raoul Wallenberg won.

Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who saved perhaps as many as 100,000 Jewish lives in Hungary during World War II. After the Soviets entered Budapest in 1945, he was last seen for certain going off with a Russian officer for a “meeting.” The Nazis didn’t get him, but apparently the Soviets did.  Does he get a gold cup or medal?

I must have known, at some point, that Wallenberg was an alumnus of my alma mater, but I had certainly forgotten it by the time I received this emailed reminder from Michigan Today.

The Swedish government has created a traveling exhibition, “To Me There’s No Other Choice,” which will arrive at the University of Michigan in February 2013 – and it will feature a good chunk on his time in Ann Arbor.  Why did Wallenberg “Go Blue”?  Although he was born to a prominent family of bankers, diplomats, military officers, and industrialists –  the “Rockefellers of Scandinavia” – “The choice of a university was hardly automatic to his grandfather who wished Raoul to study abroad and who, [according to an earlier article] ‘disliked the snobbery of the British upper classes and ruled out Oxford and Cambridge.’ He apparently felt the same way about America’s Ivy League schools,” according to Sheryl James‘s article.

The choice suited: “When I now look back upon the last school year, I find I have had a completely wonderful time,” he wrote before he graduated with a degree in architecture in less than four years. Also according to the article:  “A former classmate later said Wallenberg declined to join a fraternity, though he could have afforded it, because it would isolate him from other, less prosperous students. ‘There was just no snobbery about him,’ his classmate recalled.”

A Michigan hitchhiker

Too often martyrdom blots out an earlier life that was lived to the fullest. Wallenberg was someone who enjoyed his brief years.  According to an earlier university article that James cites: “‘He dressed in sneakers, ate hot dogs, and hitchhiked wherever he went … It is evident he was popular, energetic, and outgoing, endearing himself by his humor and unassuming ways.’ Classmates nicknamed him Rudy and remembered him as gentle and intelligent.”

He worked at odd jobs and, on his vacations, hitchhiked around America.  He wrote to his grandfather: “When you travel like a hobo, everything’s different. You have to be on the alert the whole time. You’re in close contact with new people every day. Hitchhiking gives you training in diplomacy and tact.”

One of his professors recalled, “He had no fear—that’s my impression of him … I can understand why he took the job in Budapest.”  James writes:  “The Hungarian Jewish population was the only one of any size left in 1944 Europe when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the U.S. War Refugee Board (WRB) to help save victims of the Nazi and Axis powers. The WRB sought aid from a neutral Sweden—and Raoul Wallenberg, just 32 years old and already connected in Budapest, agreed to lead the Swedish effort.

I disagree with James on this score, I do not think it would have been “selfish, thoughtless, superficial” had he chosen to stay in Ann Arbor and live a normal life raising a family and making use of one’s talents.  In fact, as one who is Detroit-born, I can say that living in Michigan requires a courage of its own, though perhaps not for a Swede:

“I have spent this entire Christmas in Ann Arbor, as I had quite a lot to do,” he wrote to his grandfather in 1935. “However, I haven’t bored myself at all. We have been having fine weather, snow most of the time and a few days of quite severe cold. One morning something peculiar happened. Due to changes of temperature, I presume, the street pavements, lawns, and even tree trunks were coated with a layer of perfectly clear ice almost an inch thick. It looked very strange and very beautiful.”

I am glad to be liberated from the Michigan winter – I understand that it’s actually colder than Moscow – and under the relentlessly sunny skies of California.

Read the whole thing here.

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