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A crowd gathers for a lecture about Raoul Wallenberg at the Swedish American Museum Center in Chicago on Wednesday, May 23.

Chicago set to remember Swedish humanitarian who saved thousands from Nazis

by Hope Holmberg
May 30, 2012

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About Wallenberg

Wallenberg lived in Chicago

Raoul Wallenberg reportedly attended the University of Michigan in the early 1930s and, during the 1933 Century of Progress exposition in Chicago, worked as an operator of passenger rickshaws at the expo.

By the end of 1944, 11-year-old Agnes Schwartz had lost everything.

A Jew in Budapest, she had been in hiding for months, protected from Nazi persecution by a benevolent nanny. But she said one day, after emerging from hiding once it was apparent the war was over for the Nazis, something happened.

“You’re in a dark basement and your eyes don’t focus when you first come out,” she said of that time. “You could smell the air, the air smelled of death, and people were so hungry they were carving up horses for a meal.”

This was the situation, she said, when one day she was outside of her apartment and looked up to see a man she thought she would never see again.

Her father.

“I flew into his arms,” said Schwartz, now 78 and living in Skokie.
The reunion was no fluke.

It had been orchestrated by one of the quiet heroes who worked to save Jews in the face of the Holocaust.

Schwartz credits Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat posted in Hungary, with saving her father’s life. Her father had been hiding in a Swedish-protected building in Budapest that Wallenberg had set up in his almost single-handed efforts that saved an estimated 100,000 Jews.

“I owe a great amount of gratitude to Wallenberg,” Schwartz said. “My father would not have survived if it were not for him.”

The elation of that hug that she remembers so vividly was tempered by the ravages of the sitation in Hungary and across Europe: "My dad,” Schwartz said, “by nature was a good looking man, and now he was skin and bones and obviously not healthy."

For years, she said, she was never able to speak of those days. Now, she said, she thinks it vital that she speak out.


Wallenberg had made it possible for a father and daughter to reconnect. Schwartz said they later learned that her mother perished in a concentration camp.

Wallenberg suffered a similar fate, but not at the hands of the Nazis. He was detained by the Soviets in Budapest in January of 1945 on charges of espionage. He disappeared and was never seen again.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth, a tribute is planned at noon on Tuesday in Daley Plaza in Chicago.

One of the organizers of the event said that stories such as Schwartz’s are vital to understanding Wallenberg’s legacy.

“It is very important that the life of Raoul Wallenberg be celebrated and remembered, and that his legacy of altruism and rescue be understood by today’s generation,” said Rick Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. The museum is serving as one of the event’s sponsors.

Hirschhaut said there are survivors in the Midwest and Chicago who are alive today because of Wallenberg’s acts.

Hirschhuat said Wallenberg is symbolic of the message he hopes people, especially schoolchildren, understand as they walk away from the Illinois Holocaust & Education Center Museum.

“We each have the power to stand up and make a difference, and interrupt injustice and interrupt prejudice, or bullying,” Hirschhuat said.

Karin Abercrombie, executive director at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago, said different cities across the United States are doing what they can to honor Wallenberg.

“It’s a day to commemorate and celebrate Raoul Wallenberg for all people of Chicago,” Abercrombie said of the tribute.

Abercrombie said Chicago has a large Swedish-American community, and she hopes some of them are able to attend the tribute.

“He’s regarded as a hero,” Abercrombie said. “He’s regarded as someone who really did what he believed was the right thing to do.”

Ari Kaplan, board member of the Independent Investigation into Raoul Wallenberg's Fate, has been researching the life and mysterious death of Wallenberg since the mid-1990s.

“The sheer volume of people he rescued is tremendous,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan, and the other Chicago representative in his investigative group, Marvin Makinen, gave a lecture titled “The Fate of Raoul Wallenberg: An Update at the Swedish American Museum in Chicago” on May 23.

During the lecture, they shared some of the developments they have made investigating the life of Wallenberg, such as the fact that they “have strong evidence that he was released from Vladimir [prison near Moscow] after serving a 25-year term, had a mental breakdown and was put in a psychiatric facility.”

Kaplan said they still have a lot more work to do, and that they are looking for sponsorship and funding to continue the research.

Hirschhute said they are trying to identify some survivors who may be here in Chicago, but it has proved difficult.

“There are survivors who are alive today because of Wallenberg’s righteousness,” Hirschhute said. “The question is, ‘Where may they be and are they able to join us on Tuesday?’