STOCKHOLM — President Barack Obama, on a visit to Sweden at the start of the Jewish new year (Rosh Hashanah), drew parallels between the actions of a Swedish diplomat who saved Jews during the Holocaust and the action he wants the world to take to help Syria’s people.
On his first presidential visit to Sweden, Obama said Raoul Wallenberg’s actions are a reminder “of our power not simply to bear witness, but also to act.”
Obama is trying to rally the world to retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad for his alleged use of deadly gases against his people in the country’s civil war.
Obama spoke Wednesday after visiting the Great Synagogue of Stockholm and examining artifacts related to Wallenberg. The Jewish new year began Wednesday evening.
Wallenberg is credited with saving at least 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust. He disappeared after his arrest by Soviet forces in 1945.
Wallenberg’s niece, Marie Dupuy, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the family will present a letter to Obama at the memorial ceremony.
In the letter, Wallenberg’s half-sister Nina Lagergren and the widow of his half brother, Matilda von Dardel, suggest US diplomats raise the Wallenberg issue “directly in formal discussions with Russian authorities.”
“Researchers need committed support in their efforts to obtain direct and uncensored access to Russian archival collections, especially those of the Soviet era intelligence and security services,” says the letter, a copy of which was given to AP.
Wallenberg’s work as Sweden’s envoy in Budapest in 1944 was a cover for a humanitarian mission as secret emissary of the US War Refugee Board, created in an attempt to stem the annihilation of Europe’s Jews. He saved at least 20,000 Jews in Budapest by giving them Swedish travel documents or moving them to safe houses and is also credited with dissuading German officers from massacring the 70,000 inhabitants of the city’s ghetto.
Wallenberg disappeared after being arrested in Budapest by the Soviet Red Army. The Soviets initially denied Wallenberg was in their custody, but then said he died of a heart attack in prison on July 17, 1947.
“It is time that the world finally learns what happened to him,” the family wrote in the letter. “It would be a fitting tribute to all those who risk their lives every day in the defense of civil liberties and to the millions of victims who, in spite of all efforts, could not be saved.”
The Swedish government was widely criticized for not pressing the Soviets to reveal more about Wallenberg’s fate during the Cold War. But Dupuy said the US, too, could “absolutely have done more” to uncover what happened to him.
Obama is in Sweden ahead of attending a global summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.