How Michigan alum Raoul Wallenberg took on the Nazis and saved thousands

By Bethany Biron, Daily News Editor
Published December 6, 2011

Among the Arthur Millers and Gerald Fords to graduate from the University, it’s easy to overlook a young Swedish businessman who single-handedly saved the lives of thousands of Jews in the Holocaust.

His name is Raoul Wallenberg, and his short life as a humanitarian ended with a death veiled in mystery.

Wallenberg graduated with honors from the University’s architecture program in 1935. A member of a wealthy Swedish family, he was urged by his grandfather to look beyond his family’s fortune and pursue a course of study that exposed him to the world.

He quickly fell in love with America and became infatuated with the people and landscape of the country. After spending the academic year studying the art of developing buildings, Wallenberg spent the summer breaks hitchhiking across North America, enthralled with the foreign lifestyle, according to Scott Ellsworth, a lecturer in the University’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and leader of a campus group that raises awareness about Wallenberg.

A Michigan man

At the University, Wallenberg was popular among his classmates and was lauded for his gentlemanly demeanor.

Ellsworth shared a story when Wallenberg rode his bike to the home of a classmate’s mother, 50 miles north of Ann Arbor to have tea with her women’s society and discuss European affairs.

“He makes this appearance, and everybody falls in love with him,” Ellsworth said. “He was just this straight up guy who would deliver.”

When Wallenberg graduated from the University, he returned to Sweden “with a heavy heart” in hopes of securing an architectural position back home, Ellsworth said. The Great Depression had recently hit, and the effects were felt worldwide – making Wallenberg’s job hunt challenging.

He began working as a sales representative, and his work required frequent travel to Central Europe, including Germany, where Adolf Hitler had already taken over power. Wallenberg found himself frequently brushing shoulders with Nazi officials.

A special opportunity

As a non-Jew and Swedish citizen — a neutral country in World War II — Wallenberg was still able to travel and continue with his business affairs, particularly assisting clients who couldn't do business in Nazi controlled countries – including a Jewish businessman in Sweden who was unable to travel to his business in Hungary after it became aligned with Nazi Germany.

Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany led to a series of large-scale murders that ravaged the countryside and killed 400,000 Jews in six months.

The remaining Jews left in Hungary were concentrated in Budapest, and the United States decided to intervene.

According to Ellsworth, the United States Office of Strategic Services began searching for a diplomat who could use American funding to bribe Nazi officials in Budapest to protect the Jewish community. A tip led them to Wallenberg after they heard about his work assisting Jewish clients, and OSS officials asked the Swedish government if Wallenberg could work as a liaison with their organization.

Soon, Wallenberg was headed to Budapest with diplomatic credentials and a pocket full of American money.

This time it wasn’t for a business deal, but to fight Nazis.

Wallenberg’s first course of action was to purchase between 30 to 40 apartments and townhouses throughout Hungary, atop which he installed Swedish flags to disguise them as diplomatic safe havens.

He then began funneling Jews into the homes while concurrently working with the Nazis to ensure the diplomatic immunity of the safe houses.

However, Wallenberg couldn’t prevent the resurgence of violence as fascist groups began killing Jews on the streets of Budapest. Ellsworth said one of the fascists' favorite practice was to tie groups of Jewish citizens together, kill the ones in the middle of the group, and throw them into the Danube River to drown.

Once Wallenberg heard of the attacks, he quickly intervened by producing counterfeit Swedish passports for the Jews so they would be legally protected.

A hunted man

Amid the bribery of Nazi officers and counterfeit passports, Wallenberg's life became increasingly threatened.

“He became a hunted man,” Ellsworth said. “He went from house to house every night, sleeping with a revolver under his pillow.”

As the war came to a close, the European railroad system became so dilapidated from wartime attacks that Nazi officials began leading “death marches” to transport the Jews by foot hundreds of miles to concentration camps across Europe.

To aid the ailing Jews on these marches, Wallenberg began providing the traveling Jews with food and medical supplies, bribing his way past Nazi guards to assist the wounded and sick. He also shared escape methods.

His kindness was so moving, that when instructed to shoot him, many of the Nazi officers purposely misaimed, Ellsworth said.

When the Soviet army entered the outskirts of Budapest to liberate the city from the Nazis, Wallenberg spoke with the Russian authorities, presenting himself as a Swedish diplomat living in Budapest, to voice his concerns over the inhumane treatment of the Jews on the death marches.

It was the last time he was ever seen.

There are various conspiracies about the whereabouts of Wallenberg. Though the Soviets announced in 1957 that he had been kidnapped and made a prisoner of war in Russia, some say that he died of a heart attack in 1947 while under Soviet custody. Many historians say the real truth may never be known.

A mission to tell Wallenberg’s story

Despite his disappearance, his legacy as a great humanitarian persists.

Ellsworth said he became interested in Wallenberg during the summer of 2009 while he worked at Camp Michigania — a camp sponsored by the University’s Alumni Association for alumni and their families — and led a session on notable alumni, like Wallenberg, with former Michigan football coach, Lloyd Carr.

Ellsworth's determination to raise awareness about Wallenberg was solidified during a trip to Rome last year when he heard a retired scientist’s story of Holocaust survival. The man survived thanks to a mysterious diplomat who helped him and his mother escape from Nazi-controlled Budapest.

The story drew Ellsworth’s mind immediately to Wallenberg and convinced him that the Swede’s story must be told.

When he returned to Ann Arbor, Ellsworth teamed up with current and former students to create a group dedicated to making Wallenberg’s story known among students. Ellsworth — along with LSA juniors Sarah Thomas, a former Daily staff reporter, and Becca Denenberg — has been working to create awareness programs in honor of Wallenberg. Ideas include instituting a lecture or video about him at freshman orientation and holding a celebration on his 100th birthday in August.

While Ellsworth lauds the awareness efforts of the University’s Wallenberg Medal and Lecture — an annual commemorative award and lecture that honors citizens who have done humanitarian work — and the memorials on North Campus and in Lorch Hall, he said Wallenberg's story is still widely unknown.

“It’s wonderful that there’s a Wallenberg medal. I think it’s fabulous, but … if you were to do a survey of faculty here in LSA, or of students, I would be shocked if one in 10 knew who he was,” Ellsworth said.

A survivor remembers

Irene Butter, a former professor in the School of Public Health and co-founder of the Wallenberg Medal and Lecture event, said she felt a duty and desire as a Holocaust survivor to pay tribute to a man who saved the lives of thousands of Jews. Having been saved by a diplomat similar to Wallenberg while in Amsterdam, she said she felt a strong connection to his story and wanted to help raise awareness about Wallenberg.

Butter and her family lived in Amsterdam at the start of the war and were waiting to receive counterfeit passports from a man in Stockholm. However, when the passports did not arrive, they were seized and taken to a concentration camp in the Netherlands.

Butter said officials at the camp protected the residents from being sent to Auschwitz — one of the deadliest concentration camps in Poland — by attempting to obtain Ecuadorian passports that would allow them go to a camp specifically developed for Jews who held passports from the U.S., Great Britain and other countries.

While these camps were purported to be less perilous, Butter said this often wasn’t the case.

Eventually Butter and her family arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where they remained for a year. Their health was quickly deteriorating when an exchange deal was struck and a Red Cross train came to take her and her family to Switzerland.

“My mother was very sick, she hadn’t been out of bed for months, and my father died on the train the second night out of the camp and that was very tragic,” Butter said.

By the time they arrived in Switzerland, her mother and brother were so ill that they were immediately rushed to the hospital. The Swiss government prohibited Butter from staying with her family in the hospital. She was homeless and she was taken a displaced person’s camp in Algiers, Switzerland, where she remained until the war ended in May 1945.

Butter eventually headed for America on her own, and her brother and mother joined her the following year.

Butter thrived in America. When she arrived to the University and started working at the School of Public Health, she was approached by Jamie Catlin, then manager for foundation relations at the University’s development office, about developing an endowment fund in Wallenberg’s name.

At first, she said they hoped that Wallenberg was still alive and would one day be able to receive the award. But as time passed and certainty of his death increased, the shift focused to inspiring citizens to embark on humanitarian initiatives.

“The main goal was for people to learn more about (Wallenberg), especially students and the Ann Arbor community, and so there was a lot of deliberation on what would be the best way to do it … so that he would serve as a role model for this community and the model that we used was that one person can make a difference,” Butter said.

Butter spent five years helping to amass approximately $500,000 in funding before awarding the medal to the first recipient in 1990, Ellie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and award-winning author who has done vast work in advocating human rights.

Butter said the program’s intent is to inspire people to make a difference in their community, no matter how minute the impact may seem.

“We have to be vigilant, and be aware of the persecution, discrimination, prejudice and suffering of other people and try to do what we can to help, Butter said. “ … So many people think the problems are so huge, and I’m so small … but that’s not true. You can always make a difference at some level. “

The betterment of humankind

John Godfrey, assistant dean for international education at Rackham Graduate School and chair of the Wallenberg Committee, said Wallenberg embodies the spirit of many University students seeking to get involved in humanitarian efforts.

Godfrey added that Wallenberg’s vigor and voracious appetite for academia translated to his fight against the Nazis.

“What he brought to that crisis was in a way that aptitudes he brought to Ann Arbor when he came here as an undergraduate, which was his resilience, determination, openness and creativity in the face of challenge,” Godfrey said.

According to Godfrey, Wallenberg's story is an important example of how to extend classroom experiences to the world and how to use knowledge from the University for the betterment of humankind.

“Raoul Wallenberg is kind of a mythic prototype for this kind of an individual who’s learning and whose commitment is not circumscribed by the classroom itself,” Godfrey said. “But who is phased out into the world and who wants to engage the world with what he’s learned, and that was Wallenberg at Michigan.”