July 14, 2014

Congress Posthumously Awards Gold Medal to Swedish Diplomat

By Erin Bell
Seventy years after he began to rescue Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, Raoul Wallenberg was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday.

Washington, DC – infoZine – Scripps Howard Foundation Wire – The highest civilian award was given to the Swedish diplomat in the Capitol rotunda and accepted by his half-sister, Nina Lagergren.

“While the word hero is sometimes used gratuitously, Raoul Wallenberg truly personifies it,” Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said during the ceremony. “His willingness to risk his own life for others exemplifies his outstanding spirit, dedication to humanity and the responsibility for all of us to speak out against atrocities.”

To keep Hungarian and German authorities from deporting Jews from Hungary to death camps, Wallenberg, with the authorization of the Swedish government, began distributing certificates of protection.

“A certificate of protection simply said the bearers of the certificate was a person of interest of that country,” Peter Black, senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said. “For the most part the certificate of protection tended to not be violated by the Hungarian government because they weren’t so sure Nazi Germany would win.”

Nearly 440,000 Jews had already been deported from Hungary, almost all to Auschwitz-Berkenau, before Wallenberg arrived. Nearly 200,000 Jews remained in occupied Budapest and were at risk of deportation. Wallenberg is credited with saving half of those.

Wallenberg used War Refugee Board and Swedish funds to establish hospitals, nurseries and a soup kitchen for those rescued. Thirty safe houses were also designated.

“While Wallenberg and his colleagues were protected by their diplomatic status, they were assuming risk especially in their last days,” Black said. “The people they were dealing with answered to no one, so they assumed some risk of being shot or injured.”

Wallenberg was eventually captured by the Soviet Union, and is believed to have died in a Moscow prison in 1947.

But many people don’t know Wallenberg’s story.

“I did not learn of the remarkable acts of Raoul Wallenberg in my elementary school or middle school or high school or college or even law school for that matter,” Rep. Gergory Meeks D-N.Y, said.

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other institutions helped Meeks learn more about Wallenberg.

“The more I learn about Raoul Wallenberg, the more I was convinced that Congress needed to acknowledge his legacy in an enduring way,” he said. “In such a way that we could inspire future generations of Americans by what Wallenberg accomplished.”

Wallenberg’s story appears in an exhibit at the Holocaust museum in an exhibit called Rubric of Resistance and Rescue.

Congress granted him American citizenship in 1981, and in 1985 a portion of the street on which the museum is located was renamed in his honor.

“We honor him for what he did, but we must honor him for what we can do for him,” Lagergren said. “There must be a way for us to come together. Everyone can do something and we are all so important in this world.”

Other speakers at the ceremony had similar messages – that Wallenberg’s story should be used as an example for how to lead our lives.

“Today, Raoul Wallenberg’s voice still echoes across the generations,” Meeks said. “The moral courage of one person is sometimes enough to make all the difference for all of human kind.”