By Aaron Blevins, 7/19/2012
Raoul Wallenberg to Receive Congressional Gold Medal
In advance of what would have been Raoul Wallenberg’s 100th birthday, the U.S. Senate has voted to honor the “Angel of Rescue”, who is credited with saving thousands of lives during the Holocaust, with the Congressional Gold Medal.
The legislation passed the House in April, and its Senate counterpart, authored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), passed on July 12. The bill will now go to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Some local community members, including attorney Andrew Friedman, Andrew Stevens, Stanley Treitel and Emil Fish, visited the Capitol and helped organize a Congressional luncheon to celebrate Wallenberg’s most recent honor. Friedman referred to Wallenberg as a superhero.
“It’s an honor well-deserved,” he said of the gold medal. “We should learn from his heroism, but never again should such atrocities occur. Today, in Europe, the cancer of anti-Semitism is on the rise again. Therefore, it is appropriate that a hero, who fought anti-Semitism, should be honored.”
Wallenberg was born in 1912 into one of the most famous families in Sweden. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1931 with a degree in architecture, and later worked with Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who operated an import and export company in Sweden.
During the Holocaust, as a business partner to Lauer, Wallenberg took trips to Nazi-occupied France and Germany. He would also visit with Lauer’s family in Hungary and Budapest.
In March 1944, Germany invaded Hungary after Hungary sought to negotiate a separate peace, and the Nazis began deporting Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. That same year, the U.S. created the War Refugee Board (WRB), which sought to save Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. The board learned that similar missions were unfolding in Sweden, and the WRB began looking for an individual to go to Budapest for a rescue operation. Through Lauer, Wallenberg was chosen, the board’s second choice.
More than 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported when Wallenberg arrived. He created Swedish protective passes for Hungarian Jews, built “Swedish houses” for Jews to occupy, persuaded officials to keep the protective passes valid and handed out food and medicine. He used bribes, extortion threats and more to fulfill his mission.
Stevens, who was born in Hungary, actually worked with Wallenberg during the Holocaust, and helped him forge papers. He said Wallenberg was a “very unique” person.
“He was an unbelievable and unusual individual,” Stevens said.
At least once, Wallenberg climbed aboard a train full of deporting Jews and gave protective passes to the occupants. The Germans were ordered to open fire, but were so astonished by Wallenberg’s fearlessness, they intentionally aimed above his head. He would then leave the area with those wielding a protective pass.
In 1945, Wallenberg learned of a plot to destroy the largest ghetto in Budapest. He sent a note to general August Schmidthuber, the commander-in-chief of the German operations in Hungary, saying that Schmidthuber would be hanged if he proceeded with the massacre. He did not.
Wallenberg has been credited by some for saving as many 100,000 Hungarian Jews. However, after the Russians arrived in Budapest in January 1945, he scheduled a meeting with Russian officials. Wallenberg was never seen again. While the Russians state that he died in captivity in 1947, some accounts have stated that he may have been alive well into the 1970s and beyond.
“We still don’t have a definitive answer as to what happened to the man,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, of the Museum of Tolerance.
Cooper, who has lobbied on Wallenberg’s behalf for many years, said the Swedish diplomat was “arguably one of the greatest heroes of the second World War.”
“This was a man of enormous courage. He loved the United States,” he said, referencing a photo of Wallenberg on the Golden Gate Bridge. “He was just a first-class human being, and arguably the greatest hero of the Holocaust. …He was a real beacon of light.”
Cooper said he is pleased that Wallenberg will likely receive the Congressional Gold Medal, as it will expose younger generations to his legacy. It also coincided with the announcement that Hungarian officials had arrested Laszlo Csatary, who was considered the No. 1 most wanted Nazi war criminal. Cooper said those two developments should send a “very important and necessary” message to the Hungarian people: don’t be so quick to embrace ideologies.
The rabbi said it is very important that Wallenberg’s fate is eventually known and transcribed into history books.
“He is the real deal. Raoul Wallenberg is a real hero, an American hero,” Cooper said, adding that he paid the ultimate price in saving countless lives. “There’s no greater person worthy of emulation than him.”
Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California) agreed.
“I think Raoul Wallenberg deserves this honor and any other we can bestow on him, because he is a real hero,” Waxman said.
He said he first heard of Wallenberg through his former colleague, the late Tom Lantos, who was among those saved by Wallenberg during World War II. He said Lantos made Wallenberg an honorary citizen of the U.S. several years ago so that the country could more aggressively pursue the truth about his fate.
“He should be remembered as a man who went out of his way to save lives … and paid a heavy price in doing so,” Waxman said.