When Raoul Wallenberg graduated from the University of Michigan in 1935, no one could have predicted the epic struggles that lay ahead of him.
Wallenberg served as neutral Sweden’s special envoy in German-occupied Budapest, secretly tasked by the United States to try to save the gravely imperiled Hungarian Jews—the last remaining major Jewish population in Europe.
Arriving in july 1944, Wallenberg enlisted 400 Jewish volunteers and placed them under Swedish diplomatic protection. They produced thousands of “schutzpasses,” special Swedish passports, which granted the bearer immunity from deportation.
Wallenberg also declared dozens of buildings in Budapest to be under the diplomatic protection of Sweden, and their thousands of occupants immune from arrest and seizure.
Shortly before the Soviets arrived in Budapest, the Nazis surrounded the city’s Jewish ghetto, determined to massacre the remaining Jews in Budapest. Wallenberg bluffed the Germans into canceling their plans by threatening that they would hang for war crimes once the war was over. Wallenberg’s actions saved tens of thousands of lives from the jaws of the Nazi death machine.
When the Soviet army entered Budapest in early 1945, Russian authorities placed Wallenberg in detention and took him from Budapest. He disappeared into the Soviet Gulag and was never seen again.
In order to honor and perpetuate the extraordinary accomplishments, sacrifice and humanitarian values of Raoul Wallenberg, the University of Michigan annually presents the Wallenberg medal and lecture. This medal is bestowed on individuals whose uncommon and unrelenting commitment to human dignity, human rights and justice embodies the dedication of Raoul Wallenberg. The Wallenberg medal expresses the conviction that one person can make a difference.
Integrity of the human spirit, hope that the arc of history bends toward justice, and the ability to endure and triumph in the darkest of situations, are common traits among awardees. Some past recipients include: Dr. Denis Mukwege, journalist Lydia Cacho, and Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
This year’s honoree is Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Abiding by the principles of non-violence, Suu Kyi has committed her life to the struggle for democracy and human rights in her native Burma.
The daughter of revered Burmese independence leader Aung San, she became the leader of the democratic opposition in 1988 amidst severe repression and human rights abuses by the military regime. She has continually called for multi-party elections and for the government to stop its repression.
Suu Kyi has faced down military guns, gone on hunger strike on behalf of jailed colleagues, and was under house arrest for 15 of the last 22 years.
Her insistence on speaking out despite government threats, incarceration and intimidation has made her a great defender of her people and brought hope to her oppressed homeland.