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Daring road trips, grapefruit and architecture: Raoul Wallenberg’s life at Michigan

January 25, 2013
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Hitchhiking was Raoul Wallenberg’s favorite way to see America when he was a young Swedish student at the University of Michigan. He bummed rides all the way to California.

His last great adventure at U-M was a summer road trip in a classmate’s old Ford pickup truck, driven from Michigan to Mexico City and back again.

From the bold—sometimes dangerous—way Wallenberg lived his life as a student in the early 1930s, it’s easy to see how he was capable of the humanitarian heroics that made him famous later in life.

Freshman photo of Raoul Wallenberg.

Wallenberg’s freshman photo.

As a Swedish diplomat, he rescued tens of thousands of Jews in 1944 during the Holocaust, using safe houses and special passports, or “Schutz-pass,” in Hungary to save them from the gas chambers.

Wallenberg’s legacy is now the subject of special reflection as the centenary of his birth is celebrated. During the past year, an exhibition that tells his fascinating life story has been moving around the world—Budapest, New York, Moscow, Berlin and other cities. It will be on display at U-M in the Michigan Union from Jan. 31 to Feb. 28.

Among the most interesting records of Wallenberg’s life are the letters he wrote to his grandfather describing his time at U-M, where he earned a degree in architecture in 1935. The correspondence helps document Wallenberg’s development as a courageous, daring young man whose enterprising instincts and compassion for humanity served him well when outmaneuvering the Nazis.

Guided by an intense cultural curiosity at U-M, Wallenberg joined the debate society, followed politics, became an avid reader of The New York Times and drilled with the R.O.T.C.

During his hitchhiking excursions, he would wear his R.O.T.C. uniform to win the trust of potential drivers. When he was running low on cash on the road, he would make sketches and sell them.

“When you travel like a tramp, things are totally different,” wrote Wallenberg, whose family was one of Sweden’s wealthiest.

“You are in intimate contact with new people every day,” he added. “It is training in diplomacy and tact.”

Once while hitchhiking back to Ann Arbor from Chicago, a group of men picked him up, robbed him at gunpoint and dumped him in a ditch. Throughout the ordeal, Wallenberg said he kept calm and didn’t feel frightened because he found the situation “interesting.”

“This will not make me give up hitchhiking,” he said. “Instead, I will carry less money with me and become more cunning.”

Wallenberg with U-M friends.

Wallenberg (left) with friends at U-M.

The letters are also full of keen—often humorous—observations of everyday U-M life. He started playing golf here and tried grapefruit for the first time and loved it. His room was decorated with murals of Stockholm and New York that he drew on long sheets of paper.

He said that all the offices and work places at the university “contain very stern-looking older and younger ladies.” But he said they were nice, well-informed and “have more backbone than most of the men.”

He added, “I have noticed the same thing in school: The women students are much better educated than the boys and less conservative.”

Wallenberg wrote that his grandfather didn’t want him to go to America to learn to build skyscrapers and movie houses. He wanted his grandson to learn to want to build them.

“In other words, I was to acquire some of the American spirit which lies behind their technological and economic progress,” he said.

During the summer before his senior year, Wallenberg embarked on his “escapade to Mexico” with a classmate who was given the keys to his family’s banged-up old Ford pickup truck. They drove through deserts and over mountains—often navigating treacherous cattle and donkey paths—to Mexico City. They camped in tents on the roadside and used ropes, chains and shovels to free the truck when it got stuck on muddy roads.

“We are very dirty from the mud and the dust and wading in dirty water, and I have let my beard grow, just for fun,” he said.

Before leaving Mexico, they loaded up on various handicrafts—tablecloths, napkins, mats, straw items—and sold them when they returned to Ann Arbor.

When he graduated, Wallenberg told his grandfather that he had grown comfortable in Ann Arbor and was sad to leave. But he said that he must go because there were more important things for him to do elsewhere.

A special Swedish passport, or "Schutz-pass," that Wallenberg issued to Jews.

A special Swedish passport, or “Schutz-pass,” credited with saving the lives of 20,000 Jews.

One of Wallenberg’s final assignments as a student was designing a low-cost housing project for 4,500 people over 16 city blocks. The exercise seemed to prepare him for his rescue mission in Budapest, which involved searching for buildings that could be used for safe houses for Jews.

He found a way to give refuge to 34,000 people in 35 buildings designed for fewer than 5,000 people.

Wallenberg hoped to return to U-M to see how it recovered from the Great Depression. But that never happened. He was rounded up when Soviet forces took over Budapest and was never heard from again.

The exhibit, “To me there’s no other choice: Raoul Wallenberg 1912-2012,” will be displayed Jan. 31-Feb. 28 in the Art Lounge on the first floor of the Michigan Union.

More information about Wallenberg and the exhibit: http://www.wallenberg.umich.edu/index.html

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