The University Record, October 23, 2000

Wallenberg’s half-sister, Nina Lagergren, speaks at annual lecture

By Britt Halvorson

The heroic acts of U-M alumnus Raoul Wallenberg will be celebrated Oct. 25 with a lecture by his half-sister Nina Lagergren. “Raoul Wallenberg Remembered: His Sister Looks Back,” at 7:30 p.m. in Rackham Amphitheater, marks the 10th Annual Raoul Wallenberg Lecture.

“On the 10th year, we wanted to focus on Raoul Wallenberg himself,” says Irene Butter, professor emerita of health management and policy and member of the Wallenberg Executive Committee. “We wanted to celebrate his heroism by learning more about him.”

Lagergren will provide a unique perspective on Wallenberg—his childhood, interests, personality and education. She also will discuss her family’s response when Wallenberg accepted a diplomatic position in Budapest, as well as the efforts made by the family, Swedish government and the Wallenberg Foundation to discover what happened to Wallenberg after he disappeared from Budapest in 1945.

Born in 1912 in Sweden, Wallenberg is known for his courageous work to save the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II. After attending the U-M College of Architecture in 1931–35, Wallenberg worked for a European trading company where he came into contact with many Jewish refugees. In 1944, at the request of Jewish organizations, the Swedish Foreign Ministry sent Wallenberg on a rescue mission to Budapest. In Budapest, Wallenberg in part devised a protective Swedish passport system called the “Schutzpass;” established protected hospitals, schools and soup kitchens for Jews; negotiated with the Budapest S.S. troops commander for the safety of the Jews he had worked to protect; and made numerous rescues in November 1944 along the march route to the Austrian-Hungarian border before Jews were sent on to concentration camps.

After reporting to Soviet headquarters in Budapest on Jan. 17, 1945, Wallenberg disappeared. Soviet officials claim that Wallenberg died in 1947, but investigations into his whereabouts have remained inconclusive.

Lagergren’s mother, who was dedicated to finding out what happened to her son, transmitted her cause to her remaining children when she passed away, Butter says. Among her many activities over the years, Lagergren announced the establishment of the Free Wallenberg Committee at a 1979 press conference and met with Soviet officials under Gorbachev’s government. She has never received satisfactory documentation of her brother’s fate. A series of cover-ups, Butter notes, make it difficult to know what happened after Wallenberg’s disappearance.

Lagergren will be accompanied at the lecture by her daughters Nane Annan and Mi Wenstedt. Annan, wife of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, will introduce her mother.

According to Butter, the annual University Wallenberg Lecture, funded by the Wallenberg Endowment and the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, features speakers who embody some of the courage, self-sacrifice and integrity that Wallenberg demonstrated. “We select people who are heroes,” Butter asserts.

Each year, the selection committee solicits nominations for speakers and chooses one individual from the list of candidates who were nominated. Criteria include outstanding courage, a willingness to help the persecuted, a defense of human rights, integrity of human spirit, a resistance to oppression and self-sacrifice. Though the project has focused heavily on heroes related to the Holocaust, Butter notes that the Wallenberg Lecture and the Wallenberg Medal, which is given to each speaker, honor outstanding current humanists who emulate or resemble Wallenberg in any courageous and significant endeavor.

The annual lecture highlights individuals who “make a visible link between values and action,” Butter emphasizes. These individuals, like Wallenberg, prove that one person can make a positive difference in the world.

Past Wallenberg lecturers include U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who helped spearhead the Civil Rights Movement in the South in the 1960s; Simha Rotem, who rescued survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto; Marion P. Pritchard, responsible, as a social work student at the time, for rescuing as many as 150 people when the Nazis invaded The Netherlands; Ambassador Per Anger, a longtime friend and colleague of Wallenberg who worked with him in Budapest; Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and her family; His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet; Helen Suzman, long-time member of the South African Parliament who worked to instigate change in the apartheid system; Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish underground in World War II; and Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor.

For more information on the free, public lecture, contact Lynne Dumas, (734) 647-2644 or ledumas@umich.edu.