In 1944 during World War II, not ten years after graduating at the top of his class in architecture at Michigan, Raoul Wallenberg was sent from neutral Sweden on a diplomatic mission to save the lives of the last surviving Jews in Budapest. Just 31 years old, Wallenberg organized and overfilled an elaborate system of safe-houses, placing as many of Budapest’s Jews as possible under the diplomatic protection of Sweden. He recruited a network to fabricate and distribute official-looking Swedish Protective Visas to those being deported to death camps, ignoring warning shots from SS guards to shove life-saving papers through the windows of transports and into the hands of frantic families. Wallenberg evaded arrest and death at the hands of the Nazis and their Hungarian auxiliaries. He bluffed, bribed, and cajoled, and in six months rescued 100,000 lives.
Summoned by Soviet authorities after the Germans had been driven from the city, Wallenberg went to arrange food, supplies and protection for the people he had saved. But he disappeared into the labyrinth of the Soviet prison camps and was rewarded with an anonymous death that remains a mystery to this day.
The University of Michigan was the point of departure for Raoul Wallenberg’s adult life. He came to Ann Arbor in 1931, the scion of one of Sweden’s pre-eminent families that included Lutheran bishops, industrialists, bankers, diplomats, and philanthropists. Wallenberg lived in boarding houses on Haven, Hill and Madison. He had daily breakfast in the Union. He sat in Michigan Stadium to watch football and canoed on the Huron. He attended concerts at Hill Auditorium and rode his bike everywhere. He was a talented artist with a gift for languages. During his summers Wallenberg hitchhiked across the U.S. and undertook an adventurous drive to Mexico City. His many friends admired his quick intelligence, ingenuity, and fearless self-assurance, and prized his good spirits, lack of pretension, and unfailing interest in those around him. These qualities proved their worth in Budapest.
Raoul Wallenberg is a world hero. The second person (after Winston Churchill) to receive Honorary U.S. Citizenship from Congress, he also is an honorary citizen of Canada, Hungary and Israel, where his memory is preserved at Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among Nations. Memorials and statues have been raised in countries around the world—that in Gothenburg, Sweden bears his photo as a Michigan freshman. Countless parks, streets, and schools are named in his honor.