Alex Ruthizer and friends honor U of M’s Raoul Wallenberg in new film

Raoul Wallenberg as a student at University of Michigan (1)

Raoul Wallenberg in his student days at the University of Michigan.

When Alex first learned of Raoul Wallenberg’s University of Michigan connection, he was mad. “I’d heard all about Madonna’s semester on campus and Derek Jeter’s letter of intent to Michigan. But the greatest graduate of all was no more than a ghost on campus.”

Alex (class of 2003) wrote to the U of M alumni magazine: “Each time we initiate a search for a new football coach, debate ensues as to what makes a Michigan Man (did he play for Bo, coach with Lloyd, beat Ohio State?) …we have tragically overlooked the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg (class of 1935). Wallenberg faced down the most vicious tyranny the world has ever seen and stood-up for human rights, life and dignity. Raoul Wallenberg is THE Michigan Man and it’s time the Michigan community recognized this.”

That letter, 4 years ago, led to late businessman Bert Askwith (Class of ‘31) and his daughter Patti Kenner endowing a fellowship in Wallenberg’s name for graduating seniors engaged in Wallenberg-like deeds around the globe. It also led to Alex’s launching “a second full-time career.” A New Yorker, history major and 2003 grad, Alex is a fund raiser for Wall Street financial services companies. And now he’s also a film producer.

Raoul Wallenberg (1912-?) graduated as an architect from the U of M. Born to a wealthy Swedish family, he was sent to Nazi-occupied Budapest in 1944 on an American mission, with neutral Swedish diplomatic credentials, to save the city’s surviving Jews. In 6 months, he rescued tens of thousands, issuing protective passports and sheltering them in buildings designated Swedish territory. He risked his life daily and inspired suffering Jews with his courage and wits.

In January, 1945, detained by Soviet authorities on suspicion of espionage, he disappeared.

Filmmakers in Moscow from left Alex Ruthizer and Brian Mait and Brad Rothschild

The filmmakers in Moscow, from left: Alex Ruthizer, Brian Mait and Brad Rothschild.

Alex, whose grandparents narrowly escaped the Holocaust, conceived the idea for a documentary “to perpetuate Wallenberg’s legacy at the U of M and inform a new generation.” He signed on 3 partners. U of M grad, sports writer John U. Bacon (co-producer), Emmy-winning producer and Michigan classmate Brian Mait (currently up for an Emmy for 1st Look on NBC, for an episode introducing New Yorkers to Detroit’s renaissance) and director Brad Rothschild (the only non-Wolverine). They’re producing the doc; Alex is fundraising. As well as Wallenberg’s heroism, the film will cover his early years as a wealthy Swedish heir, a Wolverine, an adventurer who hitchhiked Rte 66 (and was held up at gunpoint) and his undistinguished business career.

The producers have spent more than 2 years in the U.S. and abroad, interviewing over 60 eyewitnesses including Wallenberg family members, a former prime minister of Russia, biographer Kati Marton and survivors.

Among the most moving moments have been interviews with those rescued by Wallenberg. Tibor Gonda recalled thinking his life was over “until Wallenberg got out of his car with his briefcase and saved me.”
Twice.

Marta Sebor went to the Swedish Embassy as a frightened Jewish girl. There she approached a man and said, “I need to see Wallenberg.”

That man was Wallenberg. He asked, “Do I look too young or too old?” Marta became his assistant, typing out passports. Several of her family members also moved into the Swedish consulate.

In January, 1945, during the Siege of Budapest by the Red Army, Wallenberg was picked up by Russian authorities. He said to a friend, “I don’t know if I’m going with the Soviets as a prisoner or a guest.” Unfortunately, it was the former. This extraordinary man disappeared within the Gulag and was never seen again. Alex hoped his team’s research might provide a clue unto their hero’s death. So far, it remains a mystery.

The team needs to raise $250,000 to complete the 90 minute film. “We run a tight ship,” Alex says. Tax free donations may be sent to The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. For more information, go to wallenbergfilm.com.

As a Wolverine who only recently learned of Wallenberg and his U of M connection, I say Bravo, Alex. And thanks.

(Thanks, too, to my pal, producer and U of M grad Judy Gordon, for introducing me to Alex.)

Care to learn more?

Here is a video preview of the documentary:

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