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Episode 24: We can be heroes

Episode 24: John Godfrey — “We Can Be Heroes”

Sophie Whitney: Everyone is realizing now like change making doesn’t have an age limit. And, as long as you’re passionate about something and as long as you truly believe that you’re doing the right thing then any quite literally anything is possible.

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship editor of Michigan Today.

And that was Sophie Whitney. One of the Parkland Florida students who created the March For Our Lives. In this episode of “Listen in, Michigan” you’ll hear the story of one of the university’s most distinguished and courageous alumni. World War Two hero Raoul Wallenberg. His story could be a John le Carré novel. Wallenberg was an architect and the son of a wealthy Swedish family and he disappeared without a trace in 1945 shortly after the war came to a close in Budapest. Just a decade out of Michigan, this charming young architect volunteered for a diplomatic mission in Hungary. Using his credentials as a Swedish businessman not to mention his wits, charisma, and brilliance to build a clandestine international network of safe houses and counterfeit documents to protect thousands and thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Just in time. But once the Russians rolled into Budapest, Wallenberg was detained by Soviet authorities and he literally disappeared off the face of the earth.

At the University of Michigan, we celebrate Wallenberg’s legacy each year and award a medal in his name to a humanitarian like him who are seeking to make the world a better place. John Godfrey is Assistant Dean for International Education here at the Rackham Graduate School and he is our resident expert on Wallenberg. This year he and the medal committee selected two organizations as Wallenberg medal recipients. The Parkland Florida high school students who founded the Movement March For Our Lives and the young people of Chicago’s BRAVE; an acronym that stands for bold resistance against violence everywhere. Both groups are led by passionate idealistic youth who are seeking to end gun violence and affect political and social change. Listen in as John tells the thrilling story of Wallenberg’s wartime adventures and explains why the committee chose to bestow its twenty-sixth medal on these bold young Americans. Here’s John…

John Godfrey: Raoul Wallenberg came to the University of Michigan in 1931 to study architecture as an undergraduate. He came from Sweden, took a ship across the Atlantic, grabbed a train in New York City and ended up in Ann Arbor lugged his suitcases up to the steps of Angell Hall and said this is gonna be home for the next several years. He was a student in architecture which then was located in what today is Lorch Hall and they had studios up to the top and he spent a lot of time up there. He lived in boarding houses as most students did back then. Academically he was a terrific student. He won, when he graduated, the silver medal from the Architects Institute of America in recognition of his qualities as an architect. He was a really wonderful artist.

Holdship: I feel like we have a photograph of him drawing. Don’t we?

Godfrey: We had I don’t know if we have one of him drawing. We have most of the photographs we have of him on campus. He is a well-known one. He is perched on the steps of Angell Hall. There’s others and these are snapshots to send home to his mom back in Stockholm. He was charming, he was very funny, he was highly poised. He was comfortable in virtually every situation. So he was a very engaging warm person who was highly respected and loved and had lots of friends and he would go visit people hitchhike show up at their house in Chicago or New York or elsewhere.

Holdship: And he came from a wealthy family and he was sort of expected to follow in the family’s business basically.

Godfrey: Yes he came from what was Sweden’s preeminent family a family of industrialists, bankers, diplomats, church leaders. It was a hugely distinguished and well-known family. In a way, he sought out anonymity so he could be himself. So none of his fellow students had any idea about his background. They called him Rudy. They thought Rudy Wallenberg from Sweden someplace. Some kid who shows up. Okay. Welcome. So he was just determined to live an ordinary university American university life. To be anonymous to be himself to make his own decisions to not have to live up to anybody’s else’s expectations. And he sought and found I think the independence that he really craved.

Holdship: Well thank goodness he had those happy years here because then his life really took a turn. I mean it’s like a thriller.

Godfrey: What he ended up doing 10 years after he graduated is extraordinary. It’s remarkable and it’s tragic. But the qualities that he developed and showed while he was a student here his poise, his adaptability, his calmness, his creativity really enabled him to do remarkable things. Ten years later in Budapest during the Second World War. He encountered an American diplomat in 1944 in Stockholm who mentioned that he was on a mission from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to try and make some arrangements to send someone from Sweden — and Sweden, of course, is neutral, people weren’t engaged to the war — who could travel to Budapest where they knew that the last large, the largest surviving community of Jews was was in place and had not yet been deported to the death camps. And Wallenberg volunteered.

He, at this time, he was fluent in German and French and English and Swedish of course and he’d studied Russian. And he also had a business affair with a Hungarian businessman. He developed some facility with Hungarian which is a complicated language shall we say. And within a couple of months, he found himself heading to Budapest through war-torn Europe with a diplomatic passport and a satchel stuffed with a large amount of cash and many different currencies. And he arrived in Budapest in 1944, in July 1944, just as the Soviet the Russian army was approaching from the east and the Germans were determined to carry out the Final Solution and liquidate the last remaining community of Jews in Budapest. So he set about organizing a form of resistance a way to protect and to hide as shelter as many Jews as he could in the city.

Godfrey: And he found a number of diplomats from other countries as well Sweden and other independent countries that were there are neutral countries rather. There were representatives of Sweden and Japan and Spain and Switzerland and the Vatican. There was a small cluster of diplomats who had been developing passports, fake identities, and issuing them to Jews and who could then claim that they were citizens of or under the protection of a neutral country and they could not be arrested detained and deported and sent to death camps and Wallenberg threw himself into this and moved the production of these false passports to a new scale and organized a community of resistance within Budapest.

He recruited dozens of young couriers who would distribute these to people who needed them. He also took some of his money and he bought houses apartment buildings and is today as we know. If an embassy of a foreign country and say in the United States is considered to be the territory of that nation and not of the United States. So when you enter an embassy or entering the grounds of another nation and Wallenberg creatively bought up a number of these buildings and said these are now officially part of the Swedish embassy the Swedish company said these are Swedish soil and anyone inside them is under Swedish law and cannot be detained. And so he packed in many hundreds of people.

Holdship: So smart.

Godfrey: He brought them out into these places to try to save them. So Budapest deteriorated rapidly into one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War as the Soviet army put the city under siege. And from October 1944 and the rate of murders grew very quickly Adolf Eichmann a senior commander of the SS had been sent by Hitler to liquidate the remaining Jewish community and Wallenberg and his allies were doing everything they could to stymie him at every turn. This is 10 years after he had left Ann Arbor.

Holdship: And yes so is probably his late 20s maybe early thirties?

Godfrey: Yeah he was in his early thirties and he would make the rounds through his safe houses and he had a network of couriers were working effectively as couriers or distributing food and medicine and papers documents to Jews and hiding throughout the city. And they could see the bright flashes of Russian gunfire of artillery in the distance and they knew the siege was approaching the city. Wallenberg was reminiscing and told his driver of the story when he was a student at Michigan about having been held up at gunpoint while hitchhiking back from Chicago to Ann Arbor. We know a little bit about this incident because he wrote his mother about it. He wrote this letter very commonly relating how he had been held up and saying Don’t worry Mom. I was not worried at all. I was very calm and I knew I could talk my way out of it. And that’s what Wallenberg was doing in Budapest 10 years later. He was bribing German soldiers, Hungarian officials. He was threatening them. He was blackmailing them. He was not convincing any way he could that that the Jews were not to be touched.

Despite his efforts, the city really descended into a complete bloody chaos as the siege tightened and tightened. Hungarian fascist militias roamed the streets murdering people. It was a truly truly apocalyptic scene. And in this in this tragic and desperate moments Wallenberg managed to keep his network alive. He became a symbol of hope throughout the city for Jews many of whom had never laid eyes on him. But they knew that Wallenberg was working and that he was there last slim hope. The end of the war came over the for Budapest came in January 1945 when the Soviet army seized the city and drove the Nazis out and their allies out and Wallenberg was summoned to Russian military headquarters and he went with his driver and evidently was detained and disappeared. We don’t know what happened with him with any certainty with either of them. The best evidence suggests that he was eventually murdered by the Soviets in a prison in Moscow in 1947. Although there has been no final confirmation of his fate.

Holdship: Isn’t that amazing.

Godfrey: It’s a horrifying story for him for everyone who is involved with the city of Budapest. For the Jews of Budapest and to have someone who gave his his is full measure to save as many lives as he could to meet that kind of fate is doubly tragic. It’s very difficult with the record to determine who saved how many and what this is. And he would have been the first to say that this was a collective effort shared by diplomats by some citizens of Budapest by Jewish residents themselves the Jewish community. This was truly a collective effort, maybe as many as 100000 Jews. Well, we do know one hundred and ten thousand Jews, I think, survived the war. How many of those lives can be directly attributable to actions that Wallenberg himself took? That is I don’t see any way reasonably to determine that. But he — no doubt by survivors by the testimony of survivors including other diplomats — he was extraordinarily courageous leader of the effort that made a huge difference and the descendants of those people are alive today around the world.

It’s I think it’s important for us here in Michigan so we have you know our Wallenberg medal which is just the 26 it’s been awarded but. And we remember who he is. But he is remembered around the world. There are monuments to his memory in most capital cities in Europe. There are streets and plazas and schools that bear his name and Guttenberg Sweden and yet to Sweden. There is a I think a particularly touching memorial which is built around his freshman photograph at the University of Michigan. And it’s it’s particularly touching because it shows how young he was when he chose this path when he brought all of his who he was. All of his capabilities to the most extraordinary and terrifying challenge that anyone could imagine.

Holdship: Wow. Well, that is an interesting segway to the recipients that you selected this year who are also very young very charming very articulate. They’ve seen horrific and been through horrific things. Talk a bit about the people who received the medal this year why you chose them and kind of what sort of feedback you got as a result. It’s a controversial topic but it’s also amazing to see these young people take up this cause.

Godfrey: So yeah, this year the Wallenberg committee decided that for the first time the medal would be awarded to an organization. The medal has always gone to individuals but this time this year the Wallenberg committee felt that we as a country are facing an acute crisis with the number of particular mass killings that are taking place around the country and that it was important to recognize organizations that were led by young people that have taken very very strong stands.

March for Our Lives which is organized by the students from Marjorie Stoneham Douglass High School in Parkland Florida which had this terrible killing earlier this year and we had Sophia Whitney and Alex Wind and brave youth leaders of Chicago South Chicago sent two remarkable students who came to Ann Arbor to receive the medal on behalf of their organizations. The brave youth leaders of South Chicago is an organization located in St. Sabina’s church which is a legendary platform for social justice in Chicago. These are people young people who face gun violence every day. And the Parkland teenagers are ones who have seen the most horrific eruption an unexpected eruption of gun violence within the safety of their schools and in face of this of this violence.

They have devoted themselves to organizing and and bringing the attention of this issue to the attention of the communities in which they live. Nationwide and to political leaders to try and effect change. They are creative passionate imaginative fiercely persistent and those are exactly the kinds of qualities that Raoul Wallenberg brought when he faced his final challenge in Budapest. Tremendous energy, drive, refusal to back down for Riana Holman and Keyshawn Newman from brave youth leaders on the stage of rock a moratorium where one would expect 16-year-olds to be intimidated. They spoke with such directness and such poise from the truth of their own experiences and with with such charismatic wit and directness I thought it was a very very powerful evening.

Holdship: I did too is really beautiful.

Keyshawn Newman: Everyone is at it again. Everyone has been shot and killed was a gang-related side of my community. I’m not going to sit and say that everyone is out of my command has influenced or have done something bad because of the color of their skin. I’m not going to say that because that’s not the case. Everyone has been living inside a community trying to love another but they can’t do it because they don’t know who to love and who to fear. You can’t fear everyone inside your life because you’re going to be restricted and chained down. You’re going to be fearful and be limited to what you can and can’t do and I don’t. I don’t want to live my life like that. I don’t live my life outside of my house thinking. If I go in this area will I get shot and if I do speak to someone or they see me back or would they look at me in fear because I’m just another teenager inside of my community that might try to rob them. It’s all things that brings fear inside of my community. And I was here to stop the injustice.

Holdship: It’s a reminder to all of us that we all have that capacity if we’re willing to tap into it. If we, but you know you have to have the courage and the vision and wonder where it comes from. But we all have it right, I mean it’s a reminder that you can be one ordinary person whether it’s Gandhi or Martin Luther King or has the power to change the world.

Godfrey: We’re a university and we see the committee sees these as having a fundamental didactic an instructional purpose for us to come together as a community to think about urgent important problems with people who are at the front lines who have put their lives in the front lines of these things. And how do we understand them how do we how how can we think of ourselves and our responsibilities as members of this university and members of our larger community in addressing these things. You know it’s been said that the highest civic virtue is courage. And these are ordinary people who have made a choice to make a difference. And that step requires courage and take to take that step requires not only courage but courageous persistence. That’s for sure. It’s the it’s the willingness to persist in the face of adversity in the face of naysayers in the face of all kinds of challenges. I guess one of the through-line that connects so many of our medalists is people who have who have, a an intellectual and an emotional recognition of the vulnerability of of humankind and the variety of challenges that we face. And we have to overcome collectively these are important prophetic voices and we need to heed them

Holdship: Wow it’s always reassuring to talk to someone like John. At a time when the world feels a little unmoored. And to remember there are still people out there like Raoul Wallenberg and the young activists in March for Our Lives. And brave. You can find more listen in Michigan podcasts a Google Play Music, iTunes, Stitcher and Tune In or you can go to Michigan Today at UMich.edu and click podcast under the topics tab. OK. Thanks for listening. Till next time. As always. Go blue.

Youths speak out against gun violence at Wallenberg ceremony

Rie'Onna Holmon and Ke'Shon Newman of B.R.A.V.E. receive the 2018 Raoul Wallenberg Medal

(From left) Rie’Onna Holmon and Ke’Shon Newman of B.R.A.V.E. receive the 2018 Raoul Wallenberg Medal from President Mark Schlissel. (Image: Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography.)

Two years ago, as he walked his girlfriend home from a bus stop, Ke’Shon Newman’s brother was shot nine times and killed in crossfire.

The Chicago high school student said the tragedy traumatized his family, leaving the fear that his mother might lose another son due to the conditions of their neighborhood.

After losing his brother, Newman said he suffered with depression. He finally got the chance to speak out about his loss when he joined B.R.A.V.E., the youth-led violence prevention council of St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side.

“I wasn’t going to let my brother’s name become a statistic,” Newman said. “He won’t be just a regular kid that was shot on the streets. I’m going to make justice for his name. I’m going to make sure that everyone else who went through that can also get justice for their brothers, their sisters, their mothers, their cousins, any family members that they’ve lost.

“I’m here to make justice because of the injustice that I see every single day of my life.”

From darkness to light

University of Michigan awarded its 2018 Wallenberg Medal to two youth organizations working to end gun violence. Representatives for B.R.A.V.E. youth leaders and the student activists behind March For Our Lives in Parkland, Florida, accepted the honors Nov. 14 in Rackham Auditorium.

B.R.A.V.E. (Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere) was formed in 2009 to train youths to be peacemakers with their peers and leaders, while giving them the opportunity to create social change through leadership, community organizing, activism, and public speaking.

Wallenberg in college

Raoul Wallenberg as a Michigan student.

Over the years, B.R.A.V.E. activists have led peace initiatives in their community and have taken to international, national, and local platforms to advocate for peace and justice in Chicago.

March For Our Lives was born after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which a gunman killed 17 people.

The student activists of March For Our Lives have created a movement aiming to end gun violence and hold elected officials accountable. Primary goals include funding gun violence research, requiring background checks for all gun purchases, and promoting safe storage and mandatory gun theft reporting.

At the ceremony, representatives from each group received the Wallenberg Medal and delivered the annual Wallenberg Lecture.

The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program honors the legacy of U-M graduate Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II.

The award is given annually to those who demonstrate the capacity of the human spirit to stand up for the helpless, defend the integrity of the powerless, and speak out on behalf of the voiceless.

“(Wallenberg’s) legacy for us is the conviction that one person can make a difference and that courage is the indispensable civic virtue,” said John Godfrey, chair of the Wallenberg committee.

Young and fearless

This year marks the first time the medal has been conferred upon an organization, and the honorees are the youngest recipients in the 26 years the University has given this award.

At the ceremony, President Mark Schlissel said the honorees have demonstrated a “level of engagement that is so desperately needed in our society.” He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that gun deaths are the second leading cause of fatalities for children in the nation. Gun violence is the number one leading cause of death among African-American children.

“We must honor and bring attention to the young people in our nation’s neighborhoods who are standing up and demanding change,” Schlissel said. “Those who are ensuring that we do not forget the lives taken and the communities forever saddened. Those who work tirelessly against violence and injustice and who carry forward the greatest qualities of Raoul Wallenberg.”

Sofie Whitney and Alex Wind of March For Our Lives receive their group’s medal from Schlissel.

Sofie Whitney and Alex Wind of March For Our Lives receive their group’s medal from Schlissel. (Image: Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography.)

In his remarks, Alex Wind, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High and one of the representatives from March For Our Lives, cautioned audience members against only caring about issues once tragedies affect their personal lives.

“You don’t want to wait to see your brother, you don’t want to wait to see your best friend, your parents, your children in a casket,” Wind said. “You want to be able to have prevented that.”

Sofie Whitney, a recent graduate from the high school, recounted the day of the tragic shooting that targeted her school as well as how the March For Our Lives movement was born.

“It’s amazing to see that everyone is realizing now change-making doesn’t have an age limit, and as long as you’re passionate about something and as long as you truly believe that you’re doing the right thing, quite literally anything is possible,” said Whitney, a co-founder of March For Our Lives.

Rie’Onna Holmon, a junior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Chicago and a member of B.R.A.V.E., recounted an experience in which her bus was caught in crossfire, and said she can still hear the gunshots in her head.

Holmon noted the systemic root problems that cause gun violence, such as poverty.

“I’m here today to make sure everybody here, if you’ve been through something — even if it wasn’t a shooting — if you’ve been through something that traumatized you, that bothers you, get out there and voice your opinion,” she said.

After their remarks, the four student activists participated in a Q&A. They discussed the role of social media in their lives, the difficulties in organizing, and how adults can support their missions.

In closing, Newman noted the importance of finding ways to authentically tell one’s story instead of allowing others to reduce it to appealing sound bites.

“Make sure you tell your story, and don’t let nobody change it.”

 This story is reprinted courtesy of The University Record.

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