The University of Michigan is the University’s biggest fan. You can see or hear self-promotion everywhere you go — for me, it can get a little tiring. Our University has educated some of the world’s greatest thinkers, leaders and dreamers, but doesn’t calling ourselves “the leaders and best” 1,000 times at every football game devalue the title just a little bit?

This Wednesday, however, the University is kicking off a two-year celebration for a man who exemplifies everything our University should stand for. Raoul Wallenberg, a 1935 graduate with a degree in architecture, is, quite simply, one of the most benevolent humanitarians of all time. If you aren’t aware of who he is, you owe it to yourself to get educated.

Wallenberg was born in Sweden in 1912 to a wealthy family. His grandfather was a Swedish diplomat, and shortly after Wallenberg graduated from the University, his grandfather helped him get a job working at an import and export company in Stockholm owned by a Hungarian Jewish man. As World War II escalated, Hungary implemented laws that essentially barred Jews from any rights. This forced Wallenberg to become the main business intermediary for his company in Hungary, giving him a direct view of the Nazi’s indiscriminate hatred and violence. It was this knowledge that catalyzed Wallenberg to become a hero, saving tens of thousands of Jews from deportation to the Nazi death camps.

With the assistance of several international and philanthropic organizations, Wallenberg was appointed as a Swedish diplomat to Hungary with the clandestine objective of rescuing as many Jews as possible. Wallenberg was given enough money to rent out 32 buildings, which he immediately declared Swedish extraterritorial space. With the help of about 350 people, he began issuing protective passports to Jews. These passports, though not technically legal, seemed legitimate and convinced the Nazi officials that the Jews were Swedes awaiting repatriation. The rescued people were given rooms in one of the 32 buildings, where they rode out the remainder of the Nazi occupation. By the time of his disappearance in early 1945, which has never been solved, Wallenberg and his team had saved almost 100,000 Jews from certain death.

Wallenberg was not a typical human being. Though he was born with a silver spoon, he chose to work during his time in Ann Arbor. A classmate of his remembered Wallenberg decided not to join a fraternity because “it would isolate him from a certain strata of students.” When he traveled around North America, he liked to hitchhike. He told his grandfather, “you’re in close contact with new people every day. Hitchhiking gives you training in diplomacy and tact.” With such care for his fellow man and an exemplary sense of humility, it’s no wonder that Wallenberg is celebrated worldwide.

Since 1990, the University has given out the Wallenberg Medal annually to people who have “acted selflessly without expectation of reward” to honor the memory of Wallenberg. And what person better personifies “moral excellence in ordinary people?” Every time that he issued a protective passport, he was disobeying Nazi law. Every time that he housed a Jewish man, woman or child, he was making himself a target. All for 100,000 people that he didn’t know. All for 100,000 people who weren’t even similar to him. Wallenberg didn’t share a religion, a nationality or even a native tongue with any of the people he saved, yet he was willing to die for them.

And he never stopped being courageous, even being so bold as to hand out protective passports in plain view of armed Hungarian troops. When he caught wind of a Nazi plan to plant explosives in the Budapest ghetto, he thwarted it by threatening to indict the men on war crimes charges. Simply put, he was a mensch.

We’re lucky that none of us will ever be put in a situation that dire, but there’s still much we can learn from Wallenberg. He could’ve stayed in Sweden and lived comfortably but he felt compelled to fight for what was right. He understood that all people are created equal and deserve the same rights. Even if it’s something as small as withholding judgment on a person you’ve just met, your small actions honor Wallenberg’s legacy of faith in the human spirit.

He may not be sponsored by Ugg like Tom Brady, or lend his voice to Star Wars like James Earl Jones, but if we’re serious about this “leaders and best” business, Wallenberg should become the face of this university.

Andrew Eckhous can be reached at aeckhous@umich.edu.

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