Raoul Wallenberg climbed atop trains filled with Hungarian Jews bound for concentration camps, passed out Swedish protective passports, and demanded the Germans release them.
The late Swedish diplomat and University of Michigan graduate created Swedish safe houses in Budapest where Jews could seek shelter. In all, it's believed he helped to save 100,000 Jews from Nazi execution.
University of Toledo honors student Michael Gammo acknowledged that he had never heard of Mr. Wallenberg before he was asked to do research on him for the celebration of what would be his 100th birthday today. Now, he describes Mr. Wallenberg by saying: "The guy was an action hero — really."
"The best exploit I read about was when he was running on top of a train full of prisoners," Mr. Gammo said. "He was passing people protective passes and food and tools and whatever he could shove down there, and at the same time, the Nazis were actually shooting at him. The SS guards were asked afterward why they didn't hit him since he was such as easy target, and they said, ‘We shot higher than his head because we respected his guts so much we didn't think he deserved to die.'?"
Mr. Gammo and Alyssa Brown, a senior majoring in new media, are creating an exhibit on Mr. Wallenberg that is to be installed in the main area of Carlson Library this month. The exhibit is to make its formal debut at noon Aug. 22 during which a reception for Carolina Wishner, this year's recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg Scholar Award, also will be held.
Mr. Gammo, a junior biology major from Point Place, said the photographic and educational panels he and Ms. Brown are assembling are intended to walk viewers through Mr. Wallenberg's life story "and understand the gravity of what the man did and what he was fighting for." Ms. Brown also is pounding 10,000 nails into wooden boards as an artistic representation of the vast numbers of people Mr. Wallenberg saved. Each nail represents 10 people.
Thomas Barden, dean of the Honors College at UT and a member of the committee that selects the recipient of the annual Wallenberg Scholar Award, said Mr. Wallenberg's might not be a household name but it should be.
"Nobody knew about Oskar Schindler until Schindler's List — a novel by an Australian that became a movie," he said. "Wallenberg is like him. In fact, that could have been Wallenberg's story if [Steven] Spielberg had done it. He did the same sort of humane thing in an incredibly inhumane situation.
"Wallenberg was not a Jew himself but he was somehow in a diplomatic situation where he could give away Swedish passports. He realized, "If I don't do this, they're going to die.'?"
While the Soviet government maintained that Mr. Wallenberg died in a Soviet prison in 1947, his fate has long been the subject of ongoing inquiry. His remains never were located.
Among the local tributes to Mr. Wallenberg, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library has a small display dedicated to Mr. Wallenberg in the first-floor humanities department at the main library. Several books about Mr. Wallenberg and the Holocaust in Hungary are available for borrowing.
Toledoan Robert Karp had such admiration for Mr. Wallenberg that he endowed a scholarship in his name at UT in 1987. "In 1985, I read an article in the Detroit News about 50-year graduates at the University of Michigan being honored," Mr. Karp recalled. "Wallenberg had graduated in 1935, and he was the most luminous. He was the most celebrated."
"I founded the award because I wanted to honor Wallenberg," he said.
The award, which this year included a $1,000 tuition grant, is given to a UT student who exemplifies Mr. Wallenberg's humanitarian spirit.
Selected this year was Mrs. Wishner, a native of Panama who completed medical school in the former Soviet Union and volunteered in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Mrs. Wishner, who is working on a master of public health degree at UT, said she was honored to be selected for an award created in Mr. Wallenberg's memory.
"I feel very similar to him because I like to help," she said. "If I can help anybody, I will help. I don't wait, and I don't help for people to say thank you."
In New York on Sept. 11, she watched the devastation on television then headed to a hospital on foot, asking a Spanish-speaking doctor what she could do. She was sent to Ground Zero, where she went to work with other volunteers at a makeshift clinic.
"When this happened my blood was boiling," she said. "I wanted to help. I understand I'm not licensed to practice here. I respect that, but in this case they needed help and I helped."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.