Wallenberg’s American chapter shaped his heroic WWII actions

Publié le par The Times of Israel - Miriam Shaviv

The Times of Israelpublished 11/04/2013 at 11:20 PM by Miriam Shaviv

As a University of Michigan student, the Swede learned the ‘can do’ attitude that saved countless Jews during the Holocaust

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wahlenberg sitting on the steps of Angell Hall, one of the primary academic buildings of the University of Michigan.


I want to explain why I chose to hitchhike,” wrote Swedish student Raoul Wallenberg in a letter home in 1932, after travelling across America. “To begin with, I hate the train and dislike bus trips… When you travel like a tramp, things are totally different. You take for granted that you will have to be on alert the whole time, and if it then turns out to be relatively trouble-free, all the better. You are in intimate contact with many new people every day. It is training in diplomacy and tact, for that is how you get the rides.”

The qualities turned out to be essential for Wallenberg, who as a diplomat during the Second World War coordinated the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, only to disappear after being arrested by the Russians. Indeed, the four years he spent in America studying architecture at the University of Michigan were formative, infusing in him a very American “can-do” attitude, say historians and officials at the school.

“It clearly prepared him for what he was going to encounter nine years later in Budapest,” says John Godfrey, Assistant Dean of the Rackham Graduate School. “Everything in his correspondence points forward to where he ended up.”

Raoul Wallenberg’s freshman photo from the University of MichiganThe university is about to conclude a year-long program honouring Wallenberg, which marked the centenary of his birth in August 1912. In addition to an exhibit about his American period, which closed in February, it will present the inaugural $25,000 Wallenberg Fellowship in May to a graduating senior “committed to service and the public good” to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration.

Wallenberg, whose father died before he was born, was deliberately sent to America by his grandfather Gustaf, who planned to mold him into a business star who could restore the diminishing family influence.

“Gustaf wanted him to become competitive, a bit pushy,” says Ingrid Carlberg, whose book “There Is a Room Waiting For You Here: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg,” won Sweden’s August Prize for best nonfiction last year. “He wanted him to gain the American spirit – and that’s what happened.”

Wallenberg arrived in Ann Arbor in 1931, aged 19, following a short stint in the Swedish army. Architecture, a special interest of his, was presumably a compromise for his business-minded grandfather. Choosing a top public school like Michigan rather than the ivy league was deliberate, because Gustaf wanted Wallenberg to look beyond the conservative elite and gain a broader outlook.

Initially Wallenberg was disappointed by what he found, complaining in letters home that the town was too parochial and that far from encouraging the American spirit, the university was trying to introduce students to a classical, European model of thinking and deliberately toned down competition.

He quickly developed a routine, however, picking up the New York Times every lunchtime, meeting with his debating club every evening in order to improve his English and on weekends going to the movies and dances or hitchhiking to Detroit for classical music concerts.

Soon, he began to enjoy American life more, meeting – as his grandfather expected – a cross-section of local society, and many other foreign students (curiously, although 12 percent of the student body was Jewish, there are no Jewish students mentioned in his letters). He was clearly popular: several of his fellow students visited him after he returned to Sweden and in the 1960s, tried to investigate his fate. The American mentality seemed to come naturally to him.

‘He seemed about as American as you could be – in his dress, his manners and in the slang expressions he quickly adopted’

“He seemed about as American as you could be – in his dress, his manners and in the slang expressions he quickly adopted,” one fellow student is quoted as saying in Carlberg’s book.

In his letters home, Wallenberg showed himself to be a wry and astute observer of American life. The local newspapers, he wrote, were desperate for material: “If some students go to look at a factory to flirt and pass their time, a couple of columns immediately appear about ‘student group investigates social conditions of working class.’”

America’s women, meanwhile, had “more backbone” than most men, and the female students “are much better educated and less conservative than the boys. I am almost beginning to understand why the American women’s organizations are so powerful.”

During his vacations, he travelled widely, partially because his grandfather insisted that he meet America’s leading businessmen and absorb their outlook. One year he hitchhiked across the West Coast, dutifully attending the meetings Gustaf had arranged, but also visiting the Grand Canyon and catching the tail end of the Los Angeles Olympics. In 1934 he drove to Mexico with a friend, camping each night in a tent and selling sketches they could use to partially fund better accommodation.

Godfrey sees in Wallenberg’s summer adventures an increasing sense of curiosity and self-confidence. It was an opportunity to “do what he wanted, where he was free of his Swedish social class and his grandfather was half a world away,” he says.

Another incident, where he was held up at gunpoint while hitch-hiking, shows his ability to remain cool under pressure: “He talked his way out of it,” says Godfrey.

As a student Wallenberg excelled, winning a medal from the American Institute of Architecture for being the top student in his year on graduation. By that time, Carlberg told a crowd at the University of Michigan earlier this year, “Raoul was well on his way to becoming more international than Swedish. A citizen of the world.”

Although he did suffer from homesickness, he was reluctant to leave Michigan.

“It is a wonderful place and I am sure I will be long back to it,” he wrote on January 1, 1935. “If I ever do get a chance to get back I hope I will not find it too different from what it is.”

Like many students Raoul WallenbergOf course Wallenberg never did make it back. He continued his business training internationally, working briefly in South Africa and then in a bank in Haifa, where he lived for a while in a colony of European refugees. Back in Sweden in 1936, he worked for a Hungarian Jew, Kalman Lauer, who in 1944 recommended him to the War Refugee Board, an American initiative which was looking for someone to organize a rescue program for the 230,000 Jews remaining in Hungary.

Wallenberg accepted, and, attached to the Swedish legation, he immediately began issuing protective passports to Jews, identifying them as Swedish subjects and preventing their deportation.

The keys to understanding Wallenberg’s motivation, argues Carlsberg, is that he was not a typical Swede. Because of his international outlook, as well as his experiences in Haifa and with Lauer, he had empathy for the Nazi victims that others may have lacked, not seeing them in terms of “us” and “them.” His success stemmed from the fact he was not, until a week before he arrived in Budapest, a diplomat – and therefore did not care about the usual diplomatic rules and traditions – bolstered by his American “can do” attitude.

“His feeling nothing was impossible astonished his colleagues,” she says. “When they were ready to say ‘no, we can’t do that’ – for example in November 1944 when Eichmann decided to deport Budapest’s Jews by foot – Wallenberg carried out many rescues during the marches. When [the Jews] returned to Budapest, they were very sick, but not accepted into hospitals. Within four days, Wallenberg created a special hospital for them, with 40 doctors under Swedish protection, and squeezed in 200 patients. The part that really astonished his colleagues was that he even got medical equipment. He managed the impossible.”

After just six months in Hungary, on January 17, 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians, who accused him of espionage, and his fate is to this day unknown.

While most people probably do not realize Wallenberg had any American connection, he was not forgotten by his alma mater. Upon his disappearance, his diplomatic colleague Per Anger contacted Michigan to inform them – a letter that was displayed in this year’s exhibition, which was created by the Swedish Institute for the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included additional material about his time in Ann Arbor.

Since 1990, the university has also awarded an annual medal in Wallenberg’s name to outstanding humanitarians, and the recipients – who have included the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman and Per Unger himself – are invited to give a lecture at the University of Michigan.

‘We’ve tried to get the students to realize that Wallenberg was young when he acted in Budapest’

This year’s events have been very well received, says Godfrey, who says he considers Wallenberg the university’s most distinguished alum.

“We’ve tried to get the students to realize that Wallenberg was young when he acted in Budapest,” he says. “He looks prematurely old in the photos because he was suffering from stress and was balding, but he was in his early 30s, it was just nine years after he was a student.

“This university is very self-conscious about preparing students for lives and careers that will deal with urgent public issues and the public good. There is nobody whose life can say that more than Wallenberg.”

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