By Baruch Tenembaum (The writer is the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation)
Kofi Annan was a soft-spoken and affable diplomat. He needs little introduction. Having started as a budget officer for the World Health Organization, a branch of the United Nations, he climbed up the organizational ladder until its very summit, becoming secretary-general of the UN, a post he held for 10 years.
In this high-ranking position, he became a world-renowned figure, devoted to bettering health conditions in Africa and mediating in various points of conflict, including the one affecting our region.
Few people know that his second marriage was to Nane Lagergren, a Swedish lawyer who was working at the UN. She is the daughter of Nina Lagergren, half-sister of Raoul Wallenberg, the World War II hero responsible for saving thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Wallenberg ended up in a Soviet prison, never to be seen again.
Being the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, I naturally had and still have a warm relationship with Nina Lagergren. I also was very close to Nina’s brother (and Raoul’s half-brother), the late physicist Prof. Guy von Dardel.
This led me to approach UN secretary-general Annan, and in fact, back in August 2002, on occasion of Raoul Wallenberg’s 90th birthday, I was kindly invited by him and Nane to have tea at their New York residence, together with my wife, Perla.
We had a lovely chat with the Annans, who showed a great degree of interest in our research and educational programs. It wasn’t hard to notice that Wallenberg’s heroism and tragic fate did touch Annan in the most profound way, and the fact he was married to his niece had most like
ly heightened his sensitivity toward the Swedish diplomat and the issue of rescue at large.
Ever since that meeting, which was followed by several more, including one we held at the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial, deployed next to the UN Headquarters in Manhattan, we felt that Annan had become a source of inspiration to us.
He was always ready to help, willing to know about our activities and eager to give some good advice. When he learned about our Houses of Life program, he was absolutely delighted. The idea of identifying and marking physical sites in Europe that gave shelter to the victims of the Nazi regime, especially children, was extremely appealing to him, because he saw in the Houses of Life the very essence of Wallenberg. He was right.
A few years prior to our first encounter, Annan visited the Raoul Wallenberg Park in Budapest. He gave a meaningful speech there, and I remember dearly one specific sentence which, in my opinion, demonstrates Annan’s innermost feelings regarding Wallenberg’s legacy.
“It was here, in humanity’s darkest hour, that Raoul highlighted the vital role of the bystander, of the third party, amidst conflict and suffering. It was here, in the face of despair, that his intervention gave hope to victims, encouraged them to fight and resist, to hang on and bear witness.”
To me, Annan was not only an outstanding and seasoned statesman, but, above all, he was a remarkable human being. In all our interactions it was clear to me that his good manners reflected his noble spirit.
His death is a real loss for the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. His moral support and valuable guidance will be thoroughly missed. So will his human warmth. When the news of his death became public, the chairman of our NGO, Eduardo Eurnekian, phoned me and expressed his disbelief.
In a sense, both he and I, as well as all the fine people who contribute to the work of the Wallenberg Foundation, feel a deep sense of grief and sadness. We shall do our utmost to continue our quest to shed light on the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg and his likes. We believe that is what Kofi Annan would like us to do.
May he rest in peace.