Posts tagged Raoul Wallenberg

THE Book Tour (Part III): Nordic Museum

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One of the greatest highlights of my recent trip west was the opportunity to give the keynote address at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Dinner, held at the new Nordic Museum in Seattle on June 7.  Speaking to a sellout audience of 200, it was both a thrill and an honor to memorialize the life of one of the few shining lights during what has been called “western civilization’s darkest hour.”

At tremendous personal risk, Wallenberg actively confronted his nemesis, Adolf Eichmann, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and with courage, energy, imagination and intelligence, saved the lives of thousands of Hungary’s persecuted Jews.  The survivors and their descendants, estimated at perhaps one million today, are the living testament to his miraculous work.

When I accepted the Nordic Museum’s invitation to provide the keynote address I had only a very rudimentary knowledge of Wallenberg.  I knew that he: 1) was Swedish, 2) helped Jews during World War II, and 3) disappeared into Soviet captivity under murky circumstances.

As I studied up on Wallenberg in preparation for my address, I was astounded by the number of parallels between his life and that of Odd Nansen (in addition to their both being Scandinavian):

  • Both men were very artistic, and loved to draw when they were young;
  • That interest in turn led both men to study architecture in college (Wallenberg at the University of Michigan; Nansen at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH) in Trondheim);
  • Both men were very talented architects, and both won architectural prizes at an early age (Nansen winning third prize in a contest in 1929 and Wallenberg earning second prize in a 1935 competition);
  • Raoul Wallenberg once confided to his half-sister, Nina Lagergren, that his two childhood idols had been the Swedish nurse Elsa Brandstrom, and the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, Odd Nansen’s father;
  • Both Nansen and Wallenberg had their first significant, and transformative, exposure to Jewish suffering in the same year—1936. Wallenberg began working for a branch of the Holland Bank in Haifa, Palestine, and while there met Jewish refugees fleeing from a Germany that was enacting ever more severe anti-Semitic measures.  According to his biographer Jeno Levai, “The[ir] stories of suffering had a great influence on him.”  In that same year Nansen put his own career on hold and formed Nansenhjelpen, or Nansen Relief, to help stateless Jews stranded in central Europe obtain visas for Norway.

The caption reads: “This building housed the former Holland Bank where Raoul Wallenberg, the Righteous of the Nations, worked in 1936.” Photo courtesy of Kristin Collins

  • In addition to their artistic skills, both men possessed valuable practical skills. Myrtle Wright, an English Quaker living in Norway during the war observed that Nansen “had an attractive personality and both as an organiser [sic] and propagandist was well suited for the work he had taken up.”  Biographer Kati Marton relates that Wallenberg “was a man of passionate conviction and at the same time a very practical organizer.”
  • Both Wallenberg and Nansen would spend time in captivity: Nansen as a prisoner of the Nazis and Wallenberg of the Soviets—although interestingly neither was ever charged, tried, convicted, or sentenced for any crime.

Signing copies of From Day to Day at the Nordic Museum

Nansen is certainly not as well-known as Wallenberg—undoubtedly because he spent the greater part of World War II—from January 1942 until its end in 1945—in Nazi captivity. Nevertheless, I concluded my comparison with the observation that I believe Nansen deserves to be included in the same conversation as Wallenberg, for this final trait that both men embodied:

  • Wallenberg and Nansen both believed in the power of a single individual, even when faced with the most extreme circumstances, to change the world for the better.

In a fitting coda, exactly eight days after my speech at the Nordic Museum, I gave a presentation at Rossmoor, an adult community in Walnut Creek, CA.  After my talk, a woman approached me, introduced herself in heavily accented English, and stated: “I am a Hungarian Jew.  I am alive today because of Raoul Wallenberg.”

Fridtjof Nansen (d. May 13, 1930)

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Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen, father of Odd Nansen, polar explorer, statesman, humanitarian, died eighty-eight years ago today, age 68.  I have written previously about Fridtjof Nansen (here).  I also recently wrote about my forthcoming lecture at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg memorial dinner at the Nordic Museum in Seattle on June 7 (here).

In preparing for my talk, I have been studying up on Wallenberg’s life.  Recently, while reading Alex Kershaw’s account of Wallenberg’s actions, The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II, I came across this passage:

“According to [Wallenberg’s half-sister] Nina, he had two main heroes as a young man: Elsa Brandstrom and Fridtjof Nansen, whose acts of courage during World War I had left a lasting impression.  Brandstrom had been a courageous, self-taught nurse who had helped save thousands of lives in Siberia in 1915.  Nansen was a polar explorer, but he also worked for the League of Nations, returning half a million refugees from Germany and Austria-Hungary to their countries after the conflict.”

In my Introduction to Odd Nansen’s diary I mention that Fridtjof Nansen often quoted Henrik Ibsen (one of his favorite writers) to the effect that “man is strongest who stands most alone.”

Certainly Odd Nansen and Raoul Wallenberg took that advice to heart.  Following in Fridtjof’s footsteps, and following his advice, they both stood very much alone, against Nazi injustice, and showed how even one person can make a positive difference, and change the world for the better.

Quite a legacy, don’t you think?

Date Set For Raoul Wallenberg Address

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I have the honor and privilege of being chosen to give the keynote address at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg memorial dinner at the Nordic Museum of Seattle on June 7 at 5:30 pm.

Nordic Museum

The Nordic Museum, which celebrated its grand opening in its new, $40 million facility this past weekend, is an internationally recognized museum and cultural center dedicated to collecting, preserving and educating since its founding in 1980.  It is the largest museum in the United States honoring the legacy of immigrants from all five Nordic countries.

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg was born into a prominent Swedish family in 1912.  Like Odd Nansen, he studied to be an architect, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1935.  The following year he took a job with an export-import company owned by Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew.  Wallenberg was himself one-sixteenth Jewish (through one of his great-great-grandfathers), a fact of which he was very proud.

As a result of anti-Semitic decrees in Hungary beginning in the mid-1930s, and later with the onset of World War II, Wallenberg, now a co-owner of the trading company, undertook numerous business trips to Hungary, Germany and German-occupied France in his partner’s place.  Along the way he learned to speak Hungarian and observed German bureaucratic methods.

By early 1944 it was apparent to all that Germany would lose the war, and Hungary, an Axis power, began secret discussions with the Allies, hoping to secure a separate peace.  When an enraged Hitler learned of these negotiations he ordered the occupation of Hungary, which occurred on March 19, 1944.

Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious organizers of the Holocaust, was soon dispatched to Budapest, and the Jewish population, which had not previously felt the full brunt of the Holocaust, now began to be deported in massive numbers. [Eichmann was later hanged in Israel in 1962 for his role in the Final Solution.]

In less than three months (May-July 1944), approximately 430,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to Auschwitz; somewhere between 70 and 90 percent were killed upon arrival.

As reports of these actions filtered back to the Allies, President Roosevelt sent Treasury official Iver Olsen to Sweden to locate someone willing to travel to Hungary under diplomatic cover (Sweden then being a neutral nation) to organize a rescue program for the Jews.  Olsen approached a relief committee of prominent Jewish leaders in Sweden for assistance.  Kalman Lauer, Wallenberg’s business partner, was a member of this committee.

The committee’s first choice was actually Count Folke Bernadotte, Vice-Chair of the Swedish Red Cross.  [Folke Bernadotte, a friend of Odd Nansen’s, would later organize the relief program for Scandinavian inmates in all Nazi concentration camps, known as the White Buses operation.  While on an inspection visit to Neuengamme, Bernadotte met up with prisoner Nansen.  “When [Nansen] was brought before me and I saw him snatch off his cap and stand to attention as all prisoners were required to do when in the presence of a German of rank . . . I boiled with anger,” Bernadotte would later write.]

When Bernadotte was rejected by the Hungarian authorities, Lauer suggested Wallenberg.  Despite some U.S. misgivings about Wallenberg’s reliability, given existing ties between Wallenberg family businesses and Germany, he was assigned as a special envoy to the Swedish legation in Budapest in July 1944.

Those concerns proved misplaced.  Immediately upon his arrival Wallenberg began issuing “protective passports” to Jews, thus preventing their deportation.  In all, approximately 9,000 passes were issued.  He also rented numerous buildings in Budapest, thereby converting them to Swedish “territory” subject to diplomatic immunity.  Eventually these buildings housed almost 10,000 people.

Wallenberg’s actions came at significant personal risk.  He was forced to sleep in a different location each night to avoid capture or execution by Hungarian fascists (Arrow Cross Party) or Eichmann’s SS members.

Having successfully eluded the Nazis, Wallenberg ultimately fell victim to the approaching Soviets.  During the siege of Budapest in early 1945, Wallenberg was summoned to the headquarters of Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Front.  His last recorded words were “I’m going to Malinovsky’s . . . whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.”  He was never seen again, and is presumed to have died in Soviet captivity in 1947, although the exact circumstances of his death remain subject to much speculation.

Wallenberg has been recognized as one of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, and posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress.  In 1981 he was designated an Honorary Citizen of the United States, the second person to ever receive the honor (after Winston Churchill).  The sponsor of the bill was U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (D. CA), one of the thousands whose life was saved by Wallenberg’s efforts in Hungary.

It will indeed be an honor and a privilege to discuss one great Scandinavian humanitarian, Odd Nansen, while commemorating the life of another great Scandinavian humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg.

More information about the event can be found here.  Tickets are $70 for non-museum members; $60 for museum members.

 

 

 

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • June 25, 2019: Nordic Center, Duluth, MN
  • June 26, 2019: The Colony, Eden Prairie, MN
  • June 26, 2019: The Waters, Edina, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Legends of Cottage Grove, Cottage Grove, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Abiitan, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Norway House, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 28, 2019: Waters at 50th, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 28, 2019: The Kenwood, Minneapolis, MN
  • September 15, 2019: Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, Oslo, Norway
  • September 25-28, 2019: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 14: Sage Academy for Lifelong Learning, Goucher College, Baltimore, MD
  • October 14, 2019: Charlestown Sr. Living, Catonsville, MD
  • October 15, 2019: American Scandinavian Foundation, New York, NY
  • October 17, 2019: 55-Plus Club, Princeton, NJ
  • October 18, 2019: VASA/Lodge Linne, New Providence, NJ
  • October 19, 2019: Stonebridge at Montgomery, Skillman, NJ
  • November 1, 2019: Osher Lifelong Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • November 14, 2019: Maven’s Club/Temple Emanuel, Winston-Salem, NC
  • January 23, 2020: Shalom Club/Carolina Preserve, Cary, NC
  • January 31, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC

People are talking


“Timothy Boyce’s presentation on “The Secret Concentration Camp Diary of Odd Nansen” combined an engaging speaking style, a knowledge of history, and a passion for his subject, resulting in a very enjoyable and informative morning for the more than 250 Senior Scholars at Queens University attendees. “

- Carolyn Kibler, President
Senior Scholars at Queens University

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