On July 9, 2014, almost seventy years after Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance into Soviet Russia, his family was presented with a Congressional Gold Medal on his behalf.
The medal acknowledges Wallenberg’s heroic saving of 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi death camps. More than just honoring Wallenberg, this gesture honors his story, the ideals he stood for, and the many others who, like him, risked everything to help Jews escape the Holocaust.
In 1944 Wallenberg was a young man full of energy, ambition, and international experience. Raised by his mother and his grandfather (his father died three months before his birth), he carried the Wallenberg name proudly. Behind him stretched a line of ancestors who had served the Swedish throne and people as explorers, merchants, and diplomats.
Sweden, a neutral power during the Second World War with strong diplomatic connections with Germany and Hungary, was approached by the American War Refugee Board (WRB), which had been formed to save Jews and others from Nazi extermination. The WRB appointed Ivar C. Olsen to find a Swedish citizen who could, under the guise of a diplomat, save Budapest’s Jews.
By that time Wallenberg had completed a degree in architecture at the University of Michigan, and was working for a European trading company. When he was summoned to meet with Ivar C. Olsen, he did not know that this appointment was about to make the Wallenberg name famous throughout the world.
Through his travels in Nazi-occupied Europe, he had become deeply concerned about the plight of the Jews. Wallenberg accepted Olsen’s offer and, a few weeks later, equipped with a few thousand dollars and an old pistol, he arrived at Budapest.
There he worked courageously and tirelessly to save Budapest’s Jewish population. He set up hospitals, acquired food and supplies for children’s homes, and worked together with Budapest’s Jewish council and other diplomats to protect the Jews from the Nazis. The work he is most known for was his creation of the Swedish schutz-pass, a document granting Swedish protection to the holder.
During the Congressional award ceremony, various incidents from Wallenberg’s time in Hungary were recounted. His confrontation at cattle cars headed to Auschwitz, when he handed out the schutz-pass and then demanded that everyone with a pass was under his protection and must come with him. (His bearing was so imposing and confident that the SS officers aimed their bullets above his head.) A letter home to his mother told her that he would not be home for Christmas 1944, and that “I hope the peace so longed for is not so far away.” Peace came in less than a year, but Wallenberg never returned home.
In February 1945, Budapest surrendered unconditionally to the invading Red Army. Wallenberg, armed with plans for the re-integration of the Jews into Budapest’s social and economic life, sought out Soviet officials. He was never heard from again, despite tireless efforts from his family and others to find out what really happened to him.
An undercurrent of sadness ran through the celebration of Wallenberg’s achievements. For many Jews, whether survivors or their descendants, the Holocaust is still a raw memory. They will never forget the friends and family members who did not escape. Their pain is shared by Wallenberg’s family members.
The words of acceptance from Nina Lagergren, Wallenberg’s half-sister, were telling. “This is a magic moment for me,” she began, acknowledging the honor of the occasion, but then her tone changed. “Please,” she pleaded, “we have lived with this for so many years – we don’t know what Raoul has suffered, but at least we could get the truth.”
Wallenberg is not a hero of the misty past but an exemplar for our own actions today. He could have played safe, begging inconvenience, danger, or political importunity. He could have argued that the efforts of one young, inexperienced man could not make a significant difference. As his Congressional Medal proclaims: “He lives on forever through those he saved.”
Wallenberg’s story, and the stories of thousands of other rescuers and resisters, must continue to be told and celebrated whenever the Holocaust is remembered to acknowledge that, even in the darkest hour, there were beacons of hope. As House majority leader Eric Cantor said in his remarks, “It is written in Isaiah: ‘the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ To those that were rescued by Raoul Wallenberg, he was the light that shined in their darkness.”
You can learn more about Raoul Wallenberg from the Raoul Wallenberg Committee, whose members have worked with the Wallenberg family to discover the truth about his disappearance and to bring the stories of other heroes to public attention.