Bengt Olander, a Swede from Gothenburg, had an early education about Raoul Wallenberg, Sweden’s hero from the Holocaust.
At 7, visiting his grandmother’s apartment every day, Olander met a Hungarian woman, one of several refugees from Hungary his grandmother housed after the 1956 Revolution. He noticed something unusual about the woman.
"She always looked so sad," Olander recalled.
He asked why. She told him she was a Jew who had almost died during the Holocaust.
The woman told young Olander about Wallenberg, the wealthy Swedish industrialist-turned-humanitarian who helped save an estimated 100,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest during the last months of World War II, risking his own life. Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops in January 1945, disappearing forever into the gulag prisons.
The woman was among those rescued by Wallenberg.
Olander never forgot her stories.
An executive in his family’s party items business as well a popular Swedish folk singer, Olander wrote two songs about Wallenberg two years ago for the upcoming 60th anniversary of Wallenberg’s arrest.
A year ago Olander started performing his songs at schools throughout Sweden, part of an hour-long presentation with an anti-hate, anti-bullying message.
Last week he brought his show to New York City.
Appearing here for the first time, under the aegis of the New York chapter of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, an independent organization that uses Wallenberg’s example to promote a pro-peace message, he sang and spoke at eight local high schools. Among them were private schools, public schools and Jewish day schools.
He showed slides, told his own story, mentioned his grandfather’s work in the Danish resistance movement, talked about Wallenberg (Vallenberg, the Swedish pronunciation) and encouraged the teens to stand up against bullies, as Wallenberg did.
Most Swedes, he said, don’t learn much about Wallenberg until high school.
"We still don’t know where he is," said Olander, 56.
Authorities in the then-Soviet Union and current Russia have never offered a definitive account of Wallenberg’s fate.
"He was a man who affected my life a lot," Olander told a group of students packed one snowy morning into rows of seats set up in the cafeteria of the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School in Battery Park, at the lower tip of Manhattan. "Raoul Wallenberg has always been a role model for me. He didn’t even carry a knife."
Thin, balding, dressed in a black jacket and dark green turtleneck, Olander in unaccented English described life in wartime Europe to the attentive students, nearly all African Americans from the inner city. They sat in jeans and hooded sweatshirts and heavy jackets.
The school is based in a suite on the first floor of a 10-story office building, the former Whitehall Building, near the Staten Island Ferry dock. A 14-year-old charter school of "last resort," it serves a student body of a few hundred at-risk teenage boys and girls who study a flexible curriculum and work outside the school on internship programs.
Olander, his foot resting on a small, black stool, strummed a guitar and sang his Wallenberg-inspired songs, with lyrics like "Let there be no hesitation for me to be brave.
"Take stands!" he told the students.
The students raised their hands to ask questions. Nearly all of them came from girls, and nearly all were specific, about Wallenberg’s fate, rather than about general concepts of brotherhood.
Olander (known as Ben here, the English version of his name) passed out some CDs of his music.
As they filed back to classes, two students, Ariana Coleman and Shemeca Walker, who had set next to each other in the audience, stayed behind to chat with Olander and with his daughter Christina, who accompanied her father to the U.S.
The two teens asked more questions about Wallenberg. And they asked about visiting a concentration camp if they go to Europe one day.
Walker, a senior, had learned a little in school about the Holocaust, she said, but didn’t know much about Wallenberg. She added that she enjoyed Olander’s program.
Wallenberg’s example, Walker said, "will make me want to stand up" when other people are persecuted.
Coleman, also a senior, offered that "Jewish people went through the same struggles as blacks."
The lesson of Wallenberg’s life?
"It take only one person" to stand up for justice, Coleman said. "He stood up. I can do it, too."
Olander said the group at Lindsay Academy was the nicest he had met during his week here.
"The students were really engaged," he said. "They asked questions."
At some schools, Olander said, "a lot of students just want to get out as soon as possible."
Olander, of Lutheran ancestry, calls himself a "humanist." He took time from his job to come here and receives no government support in Sweden for his efforts against hatred.
"I believe it can’t be talked about enough," he said. "In order for [the Holocaust or other genocides] not to happen again, we must all fight evil."
Olander at each program encourages the students to examine the lies and exaggerations on which prejudice and stereotypes are founded.
"If they hear a lie, they will question," he said. "I want them to give a second though the next time someone is being bullied."
Olander said he receives a positive reaction at the schools he visits. At most, like at the Lindsay Academy, he ends up talking to some students after the program ends.
"They ask me questions about Raoul Wallenberg, they ask why the Holocaust occurred, they ask why the Nazis behaved like they did," he said.Olander was booked recently to appear at a school in Sweden, a few hours from his home, that has a major presence of emigre Muslim students. A stabbing had just taken place there.
"It was very, very tense," he said.
"Maybe you shouldn’t talk so much about the Holocaust," a school administrator suggested: the Muslims might be offended.
"I didn’t back down," Olander said. "I didn’t alter anything." He presented his usual program.
A few obviously Muslim students approached him afterward.
"Uh, oh," he thought. "Here comes trouble."
"Thank you," the students told him. "That was the best speech we’ve had in the school for a long time.
"What you talked about," they said, "has happened to us."
The students told Olander how they had suffered discrimination as members of a minority group. His program helped them understand how to cope, they told him.
"That encouraged me," he said.
The Wallenberg Foundation brought Olander here as part of its ongoing educational activities to show "others [how] to speak out" for good causes, said Adriana Karagozian, a spokesman for the organization.
Olander’s speech held the students’ attention and made his stories about events a half-century ago "relevant to their lives," said Jeff Cowen, a parent coordinator at the Lindsay Academy. "Every student" in the audience "chose to come here."
Olander said he recognizes the limits (and possible accomplishments) of a few speeches to small groups of students.
"I don’t think I can change the world [alone]," he said, "but I can help change the world."