An homage to my recalcitrant Swedish heroes


I’d been planning this project for many a season – a poetic pilgrimage, a mission impossible – to visit the graves of two heroic Scandinavian figures who left no legacy in ash or bone or even progeny. Their legacy is in truth, myth and monument. 

What am I going on about?  Bear with me a bit, if you will.

A colleague at a faculty meeting spoke of a quality unique to the Swedes and their neighbors in Norseland, a kind of “recalcitrance,” or stubborn resistance, and he asked for contributions for a show at the Swedish cafe called Choklad, beneath the Providence Art Club, at the corner of Main Street and Thomas and Steeple streets.   

I gave them a framed photograph of Greta Garbo, who was famous for her obstinate rejection of any invasion of her privacy, and another of Raoul Wallenberg, who has inspired statues, memorials, books and movies with his noble, nearly inexplicable, heroism as a rescuer of the doomed. And I combined the images to suggest this mysterious quality.  

Well, I am just returned from my actual, physical journey to Stockholm, and I hereby file this report.

Garbo chose cremation and requested that her remains be scattered anonymously … to avoid my indiscreet intrusion.  So I had to be satisfied with her stone and its calligraphy. She never signed autographs except here, in a way, in a beautiful cemetery with flowers and trees and a courteous and gracious approach of flagstones. 

As for Wallenberg, do you already know of his achievements and his fate? He studied architecture here in the United States, but then returned to his wealthy and aristocratic clan in neutral Sweden, with its uncommitted relationship to the Nazis. I believe that on board the ship home, Wallenberg saw a movie, starring Leslie Howard, about a shy professor who secretly saves Jews and helps the resistance; he was protected by his apparent harmless helplessness. 

“Pimpernel Smith” was its title, and the actor who played the role was in fact killed, flying out of Lisbon, Portugal, by a Nazi plane that bombed the aircraft. 

Wallenberg, once safe and secure at home, asked his mother to pack a trunk with fine champagne and cognac and his very fanciest wardrobe. Then he installed himself in Budapest, Hungary, and set up shop.

First, he gave an elegant dinner for Nazi Adolf Eichmann himself! And he warned the villain that he would lose the war and be hanged for his crimes against humanity.   

Wallenberg then boldly and bravely proceeded to sign papers claiming that the refugees on the cattle cars bound for horror and murder in Auschwitz were actually and legally Swedish subjects! 

With his distinguished and falsely arrogant manner and style, Wallenberg rescued ... how many? I dare not say, but a significant number. 

At war’s close, he was arrested ... but not by the Germans. He was apprehended by the Russians, who assumed he was an American spy, and died in a gulag after many years of solitary confinement.     

I had become obsessed by Wallenberg’s “recalcitrance” and by the way the world came to honor him, symbolically and in many diverse places. I have visited the sculpture of Wallenberg in Budapest, the memorials in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and now the major park in Stockholm, at the harbor, where his name is inscribed on a globe and an account of the unique quality of his life and his death is inscribed and interpreted metaphorically on a copper plaque where the artist explains the abstract designs on the walkway.   

It took me two days to find this to-me sacred space. You see, there is a grand historic royal figure who dominates the grand garden, a kingly armed military man, and I did not find the corner dedicated to Wallenberg until my second attempt. I persisted with recalcitrance.

There is no lack of recognition and no vanishing of the name Wallenberg. Indeed, I found that name in a class list I was reading aloud several semesters ago. When I came to the “W’s” and found one Nicholas Wallenberg, I asked him, more playfully than seriously, if he was maybe a distant cousin or relation?  His answer astounded me. 

“Yes, I am his great-nephew.” 

I invited him home to dinner and took him across the street to meet a woman whose family had been saved by his great-uncle.  Believe me, there were hugs and tears aplenty and galore at that rendezvous with destiny.

So, two Swedish paragons. One for her ethereal cinematic beauty.  The other for his spiritual biblical beauty.   

How did Garbo become the star? Her director and discoverer was a Jewish refugee from Russia and Finland, Mauritz Stiller, who died in 1928 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in the outskirts of Stockholm. I made my way there and snapped a few shots of his stone marker.  I was astonished to see small piles of pebbles on top.  My most excellent wife and companion on this trip, lady Michael, said, “It shows the effect of Turner Classic Movies and its host, Ben Mankiewicz, that many people make this gesture.” 

And just maybe and perhaps Garbo herself left one of these stones to honor the companion who introduced her to Hollywood and crafted and created her career.  I was in good company indeed. 

En route home, we stopped in Copenhagen, Denmark, and made our way to the Jewish Museum in the Royal Garden, in which the famous architect Daniel Libeskind tells the tale of the rescue of the Jews of Copenhagen, thanks to the courageous and determined dedication of the good fishermen who took them to neutral but safe and welcoming Sweden. It was here, in this very small chamber, with its tilted walls, unsettling crooked floor tiles, and oblique alcoves of mementos to Jewish history throughout Denmark, that I found myself shaking with sobs and the start of tears that I wanted to hide from my wife. I stifled my feelings, even though I am always proud to have feelings.  

Air travel is an ordeal. I dislike airports and their plastic-wrapped food. I catch cold in claustrophobia-causing air. But I do enjoy the statues of Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen and his little mermaid! And, on the last night of our trip, a group of youthful musicians at a sidewalk cafe greeted us with friendly smiles and asked us to “friend” them. And my wife kindly and thoughtfully purchased a Viking statuette for me to add to my crazy shelves at the Rhode Island School of Design.   

So, now that I am home among the junk mail and the old newspapers, I can look back, sift and sort, and come up with a sigh of satisfaction that I have indeed paid homage to my hero and heroine and everything that inspired them.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.