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Nina Lagergren

Nina Lagergren, 2000

The tenth Wallenberg Medal was presented to Nina Lagergren, Raoul Wallenberg’s sister, in memory of Raoul. Lagergren came to Ann Arbor in October 2000 to accept the medal and to deliver the Wallenberg Lecture. It was her first visit to the city and to the University of Michigan, which had nurtured her brother for four years in the 1930s. She was accompanied by two of her daughters, Mi Wernstedt and Nane Annan.

A Swedish lawyer and artist, Annan is married to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. She introduced her mother that evening. “Sweden was spared the ravages of war, but our family suffered the loss of a brother not returning from the mission he had been sent to achieve,” Annan said. “My mother has taken on the courageous struggle to find Raoul,” she continued. “For me, it’s of special importance also because I am the little girl, born in October 1944, to whom Raoul, in his last letter to his mother, sends ‘lots of kisses.’”

Lagergren began by expressing her gratitude to the people in Ann Arbor who have kept Raoul Wallenberg’s Michigan legacy alive. Earlier that day she and her daughters had explored the campus and the city. Their tour included retracing Raoul’s path from his apartment on Madison Street to Lorch Hall, which in the 1930s housed the architecture school where he studied.

Nina Lagergren speaks with students, 2000

“It has never happened to me before—this intimate relationship with people who have worked to keep Raoul’s deeds in front of everyone,” said Lagergren. “It is a wonderful help for us in Sweden for our cause.”

Nane Annan mentioned in her introduction that her mother was not used to taking center stage. But when Lagergren’s parents died in 1979, she and her brother Guy von Dardel had no choice but to take over the mission to find Raoul. Nearing eighty at the time of her Ann Arbor visit, Lagergren continues to reach out to youth with the message of Raoul Wallenberg. She told listeners in Ann Arbor that a turning point occurred twenty years ago, when, encouraged by détente with the Soviet Union, a committee to find Raoul Wallenberg formed in Washington, D.C. “All of a sudden publicity about Raoul was brought to the world, and there was a snowball effect,” she said.

Brother and sister Raoul Wallenberg and Nina Lagergren

Because filmmakers and biographers wanted information about Wallenberg, Lagergren began to research her brother’s story. With affection, she detailed what she had discovered, beginning with Wallenberg’s birth after the tragic death of his father. “From the very start he was the joy of the family,” she recalled. “Raoul went to America when I was only ten years old,” remembered Lagergren. “He was the sweetest of brothers, and I adored him.” Lagergren said that she was a girl of fifteen when the dashing Raoul came back to Sweden from America. Soon he left again to work in South Africa and Palestine. When he returned to Sweden, Lagergren recalled going with him to the U.S. embassy in Stockholm to see the movie “Pimpernel” Smith, about a professor helping his Jewish friends escape Nazi Germany. “This is something I would like to do,” Raoul told his sister. “Nothing could stop him,” Lagergren said, recalling Raoul’s decision to go to Budapest in 1944 to try to save the Jews who had not yet been deported to death camps. He demanded a free hand with no diplomatic roadblocks, she said. The family knew of his dangerous mission but always expected that he would return.

Nina Lagergren faults the Swedish government for its timidity with her brother’s Soviet captors. She noted that Swiss diplomats were also taken into the gulag. But the Swiss government acted immediately to secure their return. The mystery of her beloved brother’s disappearance has left Lagergren frustrated but determined. “Raoul was the center of our lives. Here we are—we still don’t know. The Russians haven’t given us the truth. We fought for fifty-five years to get him back, and now we are fighting for the truth.”