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.
- 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.
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.”