Working on a documentary film The Rescuers about Raoul Wallenberg gave me a great opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people last summer. The director Michael King and his crew came from LA and Israel to meet and interview survivors, who were rescued from the Nazis. This is how I came to know the amazing story about Mr. Raoul Wallenberg, the Academy and how I met his grand niece, Cecilia Åhlberg who is a board member of the Raoul Wallenberg Academy and the Family Association. A few months later, I met Cecilia at Danderyd hospital parking, where she picked me up and we drove to the Ulriksdal Palace garden store. What a beautiful place for a walk with her dog, shopping plants and interviewing her over a fantastic, organic lunch.
Cecilia, Raoul Wallenberg was your great uncle?
Cecilia Åhlberg: Raoul was the older brother of my Grandmother, Nina Lagergren. He was born in 1912 and disappeared in 1945, so I have never met him, but he has always been very present in mine and my family’s lives. My Grandmother was also active during the war and helped wounded soldiers from other countries here in Sweden.
How does it feel to have such a brave and famous family member, are you proud of him?
Cecilia Åhlberg: We are very proud of him, of course. He is an inspiration and a role model for me. And at the Academy we talk about him to inspire young people to find their inner courage and try to make a difference in their everyday lives. I work for the Academy because it gives me hope for the future to see the amazing young, smart people we have who make a difference, and are brave and show civil courage.
Do you know why your uncle got involved in those actions of helping people?
Cecilia Åhlberg: Raoul was very involved in politics and he had empathy for the weaker people. He could not tolerate unfairness, I think. That is why he did not hesitate to accept when he got the question to go down to Hungary and help people in need. What I have heard is that he had a lot of empathy for the Jews. I think when you see that people are in need most of us feel like we would like to do something. We saw it with the refugees in 2015 and again after the invasion of Ukraine. People can really make a difference for their fellow humans. And so did Raoul. He left Sweden during WWII to go to Budapest as a diplomat to save as many Jews as possible. He wrote home that they worked day and night. His colleague, Per Anger says that when Raoul came to Budapest, their work to help the Jews intensified and Raoul brought organization skills, leadership, artistic skills and energy to the unusual actions that they did. He created a Schutzpass and bought houses to help the Jews from the Ghetto. The money came from the American organization called War Refugee Board. My uncle stayed in Budapest for about six months and during that time he saved at least 10.000 Jewish people from deportation and death.
Sweden stayed “neutral” during the war. What were his political views?
Cecilia Åhlberg: Sorry, I do not know. But I do know that he thought it was wrong the way Jews were treated for example and that is why he accepted to go to Budapest and try to save as many as possible.
There’s a lot of mystery about his death, do you have an idea what happened to him?
Cecilia Åhlberg: The 17 of January 1945 he left with a Russian escort to go see the General of the Red Army to discuss how the Jewish people could get their property back. When he left he said to his colleague “I do not know if I will leave as a guest or as a prisoner…” That is the last time he was seen in freedom. It was not until 1957 that the Family found out that the Russians had taken him and that he had died of a supposed heart attack 10 years earlier in 1947… To this day we still do not know the whole truth about his fate.
It sounds like a movie. I’m so glad I found out about his story. Living in Stockholm for a while, but still learning new things. What is his Foundation supporting?
Cecilia Åhlberg: The Raoul Wallenberg Academy educates high school students in leadership, human rights and civil courage, teaching them that every person can make a difference. We also have the Raoul Wallenberg prize, the Young Courage award and organize the Raoul Wallenberg Day here in Sweden on the 27 of August, Raoul’s name day and now we also have the Raoul Wallenberg Center.
Can you tell us more about the Center that was opened this October?
Cecilia Åhlberg: The Raoul Wallenberg Center launched its first exhibition on the 13th of October and it is called Pieces – A story of Civil Courage. This is an interactive city walk about Raoul’s life with AR technology on the streets of Stockholm. We think this will contribute to the city life and the public space in Stockholm. You will need to download an app – Raoul Wallenberg Center and scan the QR codes on five stops starting at Raoul Wallenberg Square at Nybrokajen. Download the latest version for your smartphone and bring earphones. Enjoy!
We met on the film set, but I heard some other film projects are coming up. Can you tell me more?
Cecilia Åhlberg: Yes, one from SVT, a mini series by director Måns Herngren based on the book by Ingrid Carlberg. Also an international channel is working on a miniseries, so that will be exciting to see. There are two international films that I know of, but they have been working so long now so we will see how much longer they will be. Also, the national radio just produced a documentary on P3. There are more films, dramas, musicals, plays and operas that have been produced over the years. Raoul’s story never gets old, because I think what he did was amazing and his fate very tragic. I am glad that he still inspires us to do good and shows that one person can make a difference.
What an inspiring story, thank you so much for your time and see you at the Centre!