WASHINGTON (JTA) — The US House of Representatives voted unanimously to award Raoul Wallenberg the Congressional Gold Medal.
The vote Tuesday, two days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, is part of an effort to confer the honor upon Wallenberg in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth in August.
“By sacrificing his personal safety, and ultimately his life, to protect the lives of a generation of Jews, Raoul Wallenberg exhibited the kind of noble courage that we prize in America,” said William Daroff, the director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, which has led lobbying for the act that would confer the honor. “On behalf of the countless Jews saved through his mission, we are grateful for the House’s action today to permanently honor a global hero.”
Wallenberg, a neutral Swedish diplomat in Budapest during the German occupation in 1944, issued Swedish travel documents — known as “Wallenberg passports” — to at least 20,000 Jews and also set up more than 30 safe houses for Jews. Other neutral diplomats collaborated in the effort.
The details of Wallenberg’s fate have remained a mystery. He disappeared while being escorted out of Hungary toward the Soviet Union. The Soviets claimed that he died of a heart attack in 1957, but other evidence indicated that he was killed in Lubyanka prison or that he may have lived years longer.
The Congressional Gold Medal has been conferred since the American Revolution to honor “the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.” It was first awarded to George Washington.
Awardees need not be Americans. Past honorees include Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter; Natan and Avital Sharansky, who led activism on behalf of Soviet Jews; the Dalai Lama; and Burmese democracy movement leader Saw Aung Suu Kyi.
Bills proposing the medals need two-thirds sponsorship before they can be considered. So far, the Senate version of the Wallenberg bill only has 25 co-sponsors, well short of the 67 needed.