Wallenberg’s student ID card
Wallenberg’s student ID card

Valor may be most often ascribed to soldiers in combat, but the word has wider implications, conveying in Webster’s terms a “strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness.”

Alumni and fans of the University of Michigan will do a lot of cheering this holiday season, whatever the football team’s fate in the national playoffs. For a quasi-interested observer, who roots for another Big Ten team, it’s rather easy to mark when moments of ecstasy fully grip the U-M faithful: they are always punctuated by the stirring brass of “Hail to the Victors.”

Robert Franciosi
Robert Franciosi
Grand Valley State University

It’s a great fight song, maybe the best in college football, but I had never read the lyrics before setting out to write this piece. Yeah, I knew there were a lot of “hails” in it, but the song always seemed opaque, perhaps caused by the Latinate construction of the opening verse: “Hail! to the victors valiant.” I should also declare that massive crowds of people shouting “Hail!” in unison make me rather uneasy.

But I’m glad to learn finally the phrase “victors valiant,” because unlike the song’s second line, with its emphasis on conquest — “Hail! to the conqur’ing heroes”— the first invites thoughts beyond the gridiron. Valor may be most often ascribed to soldiers in combat, but the word has wider implications, conveying in Webster’s terms a “strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness.”

Throughout the six hours of The U.S. and the Holocaust Ken Burns and company brought a host of villains before us. Hitler, of course, but also such Americans as Breckenridge Long, the State Department obstructionist, Father Charles Coughlin, the mad dog radio priest from Royal Oak, and perhaps worst of all, Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator whose support for isolationism made him seem a Nazi dupe, if not an outright antisemite.

Although I am wary of attempts to seek optimism amidst Holocaust despair, the sentiment too often ascribed to Anne Frank, a search for the valiant, those who confronted Nazi evil yet remained steadfast, is a precious part of this history.

The reality of life during the Nazi terror is that Jews who survived were, in nearly all cases, helped by someone, somewhere, at some crucial point. And while the Burns documentary perhaps focuses a bit too much on what Americans did not do, it does include segments on rescuers like Varian Fry and John Pehle, though neither man put himself in harm’s way. Diplomats, emissaries and government officials seldom do.

Which makes the story of Raoul Wallenberg all the more inspiring.

Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg Courtesy of Wallenberg Center site at U of M.

His rescue efforts as a Swedish diplomat, the subject of many books and films, brought numerous posthumous honors. The street next to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was renamed Raoul Wallenberg Plaza. A dozen years earlier in 1981, Congress awarded him honorary American citizenship, only the second recipient in its history, joining him with Winston Churchill. Yet how many among the 100,000 who fill the Big House on Saturdays in October could name this exemplary man as a University of Michigan alumnus? Or know that there is a Wallenberg Endowment to support University of Michigan students inspired by this great humanitarian? (You can donate via this link: https://leadersandbest.umich.edu/find/#!/good/wallenberg.)

He graduated with honors in 1935, earning a degree in architecture. Though from a wealthy family, Wallenberg resisted the trappings of his privilege; indeed, he chose Michigan over Ivy League institutions because of its place as a major public university. During his years attending the university, he lived in modest apartments, ate breakfast each day at the Union, and even spent vacations hitchhiking across the United States and Mexico.

I would be the last to argue that a university education made Wallenberg the person he became. There were too many Nazi murderers with PhDs, MDs, and JDs for me to ever have complete faith in higher education’s ennobling influences. But I’m tempted to believe that Wallenberg’s encounter with ordinary Americans during the Great Depression, whether in Ann Arbor or on the nation’s highways, must have strengthened the empathy that was fundamental to his character.

You can read about Raoul Wallenberg on your own, or perhaps watch the 1990 film Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, and learn how in Budapest he saved at least 4,000 Jews through a combination of courage and what can only be termed chutzpah. With almost no authority to do so, Wallenberg issued thousands of official looking papers that declared the holders under the protection of the Swedish government. He housed these Jews in apartments that he then claimed as Swedish territory.

And in one memorable episode, he climbed atop a train destined for Auschwitz, passed documents through the windows to recipients inside and then demanded their immediate release. All while Hungarian fascist guards threatened him with their rifles and even fired warning shots, though there’s some evidence that the guards were so impressed by Wallenberg’s calm courage they deliberately aimed high.

But like so many Holocaust stories, Wallenberg’s does not have a satisfying ending. After the Red Army had encircled Budapest, he was summoned in January 1945 to a meeting with the Russian general — then disappeared into the Stalinist night.

Here’s wishing that in the coming days all you Wolverine supporters get to sing many choruses of “Hail to the Victors.” When you cheer the exploits on the field, and the “victors valiant” phrase is chanted, I hope some of you take a moment to remember this adopted son of Michigan, someone who also attended games on Saturday afternoons, someone whose valor will be remembered long after the latest contest ends and the final whistle blows.

Robert Franciosi is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Grand Valley State University.

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