Nina Lagergren (1921-2019)
for more than 70 years she fought for the clarification of the fate of her brother Raoul Wallenberg
Dear Friends, Many of you have heard the sad news that Nina Lagergren has passed away at the age of 98. After a long and eventful life, Nina’s soul is now at peace, reunited with her husband, Gunnar Lagergren, her parents, Fredrik and Maj von Dardel, and her brothers Guy von Dardel and Raoul Wallenberg.
Her death marks the passing of an era – for close to 75 years Nina Lagergren fought for her older brother’s rescue after his disappearance in the Soviet Union in 1945, as well as for preserving and expanding his important legacy of empathy, moral courage and fighting injustice, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
I chose the picture of Nina above because it shows her in a way few of us have seen – she rarely revealed her lighter, unburdened side in public, but she loved life and possessed a great sense of humor. Nina Lagergren was born into a loving home – her mother Maj had found happiness again after the devastating loss of her first husband, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg. Maj and Fredrik von Dardel welcomed baby Nina in 1921, and she made their family complete.
Those of you who have met Nina Lagergren know that she was soft-spoken, carrying herself with unfailing dignity and grace. This outward calm hid a steely core which definitely seems to have been a family trait. Nina was a warrior at heart and this she was to the end. Even in her 90s she traveled the globe to share the story of her brother’s courageous actions in wartime Hungary, when he and his fellow diplomats, assisted by a broad network of (not-so) ordinary Hungarians and members of the resistance, managed to protect tens of thousand of Budapest’s Jews from certain death.
Nina felt deeply about the need to educate young people, to urge them to raise their voice against injustice, to bridge cultural and religious differences and to make a difference in their daily lives and their communities. In 2001, she co-founded the Raoul Wallenberg Academy which carries this message into the world through seminars, workshops and a number of special projects.
As Nina explained in an interview with Swedish Radio in 2014:
“We as a family have all been affected by the bitter struggle to bring Raoul home, but for me it has been important to also look ahead, to take the light and let Raoul live on in the youths inspired by his work.”
Through the years, there was enormous pressure on Nina to simply accept the fact that her beloved brother was lost. Even if the exact circumstances of his death remained unclear, many felt enough was learned to understand that he had almost certainly died many years ago in Soviet imprisonment. Nina rejected such quiet acceptance, without real evidence – and she did it in her own way, through countless public appearances; her mere physical presence a powerful reminder to public officials and influential entities what they should and could do to determine the full truth about her brother’s fate, if only they found the will to act. In doing so, she reminded everyone that the fight for human rights concerns and involves all of us. I was truly moved when Nina, even in failing health, attended the Raoul Wallenberg International Roundtable in Stockholm in 2017 (which highlighted the cases of her brother and other disappeared Swedish) to underscore precisely this point.
There is probably no greater pain than to live with the unsolved disappearance of a loved one. A disappearance does not allow you to come to terms with the loss. It does not permit you to rest because you always feel that there is something else you should be doing to help end the nightmare. Nina carried this heavy burden for over seven decades, as did her brother Guy and their parents before them. And just like the other members of her family, Nina never gave up and never gave in. But this unrelenting fight took a heavy toll. Nina never shared her pain with the public. It was her family – her husband Gunnar and the four children they raised together, as well as her many grandchildren – who offered a vital refuge of comfort and unconditional support. It is with them Nina found her greatest joy, where she could be truly herself and recover her strength.
Nina Lagergren leaves a powerful legacy in her own right – of courage, resistance, loyalty and love – and the world will keenly feel her absence.
The RWI-70 initiative’s research on the fate of her brother will move on – Raoul’s immediate family is no longer with us, but Nina Lagergren’s search for answers will continue.
Washington DC (USA)
Photo: ©Ryan Parker