"I stopped at a small hotel outside the city that was on a cliff, with the entire Atlantic Ocean below it. In the lobby there was a middle-aged European man. He took a look at my passport and then he said 'Wallenberg? Are you Swedish? Are you a relative of Raoul?'
"'Yes,' I said, 'his second cousin.' Then he beamed at me, this hotel receptionist and said, 'I will make sure that you receive our finest room with a view of the ocean. And whatever you need, Mr. Wallenberg, you have only to ask.'
Peter Wallenberg taps his pipe on the side of the ashtray. "This came a little unexpectedly and I didn't know much about Raoul. I must have looked quite puzzled. 'You understand,' the man went on, 'Raoul Wallenberg saved my life.'"
(From Ingrid Carlberg's "Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust"--more info about this book at the end of the diary)
The hotel receptionist above was far from a rarity: Raoul Wallenberg, Michigan class of 1935, saved tens of thousands of lives while in Budapest during WWII. He grew up in a prominent Swedish family, and in 1944 traveled to Budapest, Hungary with the mission of saving Jewish lives. Secretly funded primarily by Americans, his official status as a diplomat of neutral Sweden gave him some protection and independence. He quickly realized that evacuating Jews from Budapest would be incredibly inefficient, and instead turned to protecting their lives in Budapest. He created a "Schutzpass" document--which appeared official and supposedly granted the holder the protection of Sweden, then risked his life to argue with Hungarian and German officials for it to be accepted. He rode a fine line between protecting as many as possible without undermining its legitimacy--but the most tenuous connection with Sweden was sometimes enough for his team (eventually consisting of hundreds of staff-members, many of them rescued Jews) to issue a Schutzpass, and as the Soviet Army approached, Wallenberg declared that any application must be approved.
Wallenberg developed a system of Swedish safe-houses, and eventually worked to create a separate international ghetto for Jews under protection from Sweden and other neutral powers. He created a rescue team that worked to protect those under Swedish protection--in some instances, they would impersonate Nazi officials in order to demand Jews from death marches, and then return them to Budapest. For his actions, Wallenberg was a target of multiple assassination attempts.
As the Soviet Red Army approached and others fled, the Swedish team stayed in Budapest in order to prevent a final catastrophic act by the Arrow Cross (essentially Hungarian Nazis). As the Soviets approached, Wallenberg went out to meet them and present his plan to rebuild Budapest. He was initially protected by the Soviets, but was soon arrested by direct order from Stalin himself, who believed Wallenberg to be a Nazi spy--not only was the Soviet system under Stalin incredibly paranoid, but it simply could not believe that Wallenberg would do what he did.
The Swedes, who could not believe that the Soviet Union would take a neutral diplomat prisoner, missed several signals from the USSR that they had done exactly that. The Soviets took the lack of Swedish response as confirmation of Wallenberg's status as a spy. For years, the USSR denied knowing anything about Wallenberg's whereabouts and intentionally muddied the waters, claiming he had been killed near Budapest. Eventually, in 1957, the Soviet Union would acknowledge that Wallenberg was taken prisoner, but said he died of a heart attack in 1947. Whether that story is true, or he was executed at that time, or survived hidden in the Soviet Gulag system for many years after, remains a mystery.
Wallenberg's Schutzpass alone is credited with saving the lives of 20,000 Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg's work in total is often credited with saving at least 30,000, and some say he deserves credit for every Hungarian Jew who survived the war--a total of approximately 100,000.
I learned of Raoul Wallenberg when I had some time to waste before a meeting near Rackham, and noticed the sculpture by the Southeast corner of the building, dedicated to his actions. There is also a sculpture in front of the Art and Architecture building on North Campus (he was an architecture graduate) which states simply "One person can make a difference."
For those interested in learning more, check out the university's page at http://wallenberg.umich.edu and reading the biographical sections.
If you're interested in a much more thorough understanding of the man, I recommend an excellently researched biography I just finished reading by Ingrid Carlberg, "Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust" (Which is the source of the quote at the top.) It interestingly omits or limits many of the heroic stories of physical action in Budapest--perhaps some of the stories are more legend than truth, or perhaps they simply cannot be documented well-enough for the author--but she otherwise does an outstanding job telling the story of his upbringing including his time in at Michigan (although he doesn't enjoy it in the beginning, he quickly becomes a fan), his amazing work in Budapest to create a large burocracy aimed at protecting Jews, as well as his time in Soviet custody, and how efforts to learn more have faltered and failed. Interestingly, one of the primary reasons his story has been told was that the CIA pushed it, wanting to create problems between Sweden and the USSR.
If you live near Ann Arbor, consider attending the lectures of the university's Wallenberg Medal, awarded each year since 1990. I attended memorable lectures by Paul Rusesabagina (whose story was told in Hotel Rwanda) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Other receipients have included Aung San Suu Kyi, John Lewis, the Dalai Lama, and Elie Wiesel, as well as Per Anger who worked with Wallenberg in Budapest, and Wallenberg's half-sister Nina Lagergren.