Agnes Heller Inspires a Full House as She Receives the Wallenberg Medal

The video of the lecture is now available.

“I lived in a time when we needed heroes,” Agnes Heller, 2014 Wallenberg Medalist, says when discussing being a good citizen and the ways in which that has played out in her life. Dr. Heller, a world-renowned philosopher and Holocaust survivor has spent decades as a vocal defender of human rights, speaking out against totalitarian regimes and seeking an understanding of how evil exists in the world.

The 2014 Wallenberg Lecture brought together almost 1,000 students, faculty, staff and community members, to honor her accomplishments as a courageous scholarly and public voice who is concerned with fundamental questions of morality under the conditions of modernity, and to hear her talk about her personal and intellectual story.

Before U-M President Mark S. Schlissel presented the Wallenberg Medal to Dr. Heller, he remarked, “At the University of Michigan, traditions are measured in big, powerful terms – like lives saved, generations inspired, and understanding increased across the full breadth of humanity. They include a deep commitment to improving our world, and they are often represented by heroic alumni, like Raoul Wallenberg. The Wallenberg Medal is one of Michigan’s finest traditions, and since 1990 it has become another example of the excellence of this university.” In describing her, he said, “Throughout her life, Dr. Heller has never wavered from her commitment to opposing totalitarianism, fiercely criticizing those who abuse power and demanding that all voices be heard.”

Before the ceremony, Professor Emerita Irene Butter, co-founder of the Wallenberg Medal and Lecture and Holocaust survivor presented President Schlissel with a commemorative coin from the Wallenberg Congressional Ceremony earlier this summer.

Before the ceremony, Professor Emerita Irene Butter, co-founder of the Wallenberg Medal and Lecture and Holocaust survivor presented President Schlissel with a commemorative coin from the Wallenberg Congressional Ceremony earlier this summer.

In a conversation with Scott Spector, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Professor of History and Professor of Judaic Studies in LSA, Dr. Heller spoke of what it means to be a good citizen: “You sacrifice work, time, money for the sake of things you believe to be important.” She talked of her experience as a Holocaust survivor living in Budapest under oppressive regimes that placed significant limits on the autonomy of public universities.

Spector asked Dr. Heller to discuss the difficulty of returning to Hungary in 2009 and seeing freedoms and liberties diminish as the political climate in Hungary worsened in the last few years. “I returned to Hungary entirely in 2009 to a situation that was already bad.” She described watching the democratic dictatorship decide laws, limit the freedom of the press and centralize power. “I returned because I have something to do here. It is my duty to participate in public life as long as public life exists.”

Agnes Heller and U-M President Mark Schlissel.

Agnes Heller and U-M President Mark Schlissel.

She mentioned the role Marie Curie played in helping her see that women can have everything. She held onto that desire and acted on it when the country was liberated in 1953. “I had to be a scholar, it was very important to me. I had to go to university when I got the chance. I was an opportunist.”

The evening was also an opportunity for old family friends to meet. Dr. Heller got the chance to meet the daughter of one of her mother’s oldest friends who had emigrated to Michigan forty years ago. During their friendship in Budapest, the two women narrowly escaped capture by German soldiers multiple times, once when Dr. Heller’s mother was living in one of the protected buildings designated with Swedish sovereignty by Raoul Wallenberg. They visited with one another over the course of their lifetimes, despite the distance between them, and the opportunity for the daughters to meet after all these years was a wonderful way to honor the history and legacy of their mothers.

Dr. Heller joined the audience so she could have a direct discussion with the students asking questions.

Dr. Heller joined the audience so she could have a direct discussion with the students asking questions.

Dr. Heller has visited with many students and faculty while at the University of Michigan this week. John Godfrey, Chair of the Wallenberg Executive Committee and Assistant Dean of the Rackham Graduate School, commented, “Agnes is indefatigable. She is splendid and gave a master class in engaged teaching. Never before have we had a speaker so directly connect with the audience.”

A video of the event will be posted on the Wallenberg Legacy website later this week.