Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving 100,000 Hungarian Jews during World II, posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal Wednesday in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, amidst a crowd of political dignitaries, relatives from Sweden and Switzerland and some of the very people whose lives he saved.
“One person can make a difference,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, (D-N.Y.), who was the lead sponsor to award Wallenberg the nation’s highest civilian honor. “The moral courage of one person is sometimes enough to make a difference.”
Seventy years ago, Wallenberg left his home in Sweden for Hungary to lead a rescue program of the War Refugees Board, which was established by the U.S. Treasury with the financial support of the American Joint Distribution Committee. He quickly began distributing Swedish protective passports to as many Jews as he could. These passports, known as the Schutz-Pass, are said to have prevented 20,000 Jews from deportation and probable death.
Wallenberg also purchased dozens of safety houses and planted the blue and yellow Swedish flag by each one, sheltering as many Jews as he could, said Sen. Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.). At their height, these houses provided refuge for 15,000 people.
“A fire burned within him, and he found a way,” McConnell said.
“He was like a comet on the dark sky, yet he burns on,” said Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), referring to Wallenberg’s positive efforts during a very dark period in history. Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) continued the theme, noting, “To those who were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg, he was the light that shined in the darkness.”
“He was an incomparable humanitarian,” said Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, during the hour-long ceremony.
House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wallenberg taught us “never to be indifferent, never to be a bystander in the face of injustice.”
Wallenberg’s half-sister, Nina Lagergren, accepted the gold medal on her brother’s behalf and happily pronounced the day’s events “a magical moment for me.” She told the crowd that her brother saved many more than 100,000 men, women and children, because so many of those he saved have gone on to have children and grand-children of their own.
In a brief, but powerful, emotional plea, Lagergren asked that the actual details of her brother’s death finally be made public. Wallenberg is said to have been held prisoner by the Soviet Union, and it is presumed that he died in custody, but his fate has never been made clear.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov delivered a heartfelt blessing, wondering when the senseless taking of innocent lives throughout the world would end.