by Nora Gutekanst
July 9th marked the 70 year anniversary to the day of Raoul Wallenberg’s arrival in Budapest in 1944 to begin a rescue mission that would result in his saving 100,000 Jewish lives.
It was exactly on that day as the Congressional Gold Medal was presented to Wallenberg that culminated the final chapter of a three year long effort to honor and commemorate his memory. With the presence of the US Congress, Wallenberg Family members, Swedish government officials who gathered to honor the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, and in the presence of descendants of people who had been saved by Wallenberg. His sister, Nina Lagregen, accepted the medal on his behalf.
In January of 1944, the US Treasury Department with the financial support of the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) established the War Refugees Board which sent Wallenberg on his mission of saving the remnants of Hungarian Jewry in Nazi occupied Budapest. Among other heroic actions Wallenberg became famous for distributing to thousands a Hungarian Jews a Swedish ‘Schutz-Pass’ which conferred upon them official Swedish protection thus preventing the German from deporting them to concentration camps.
Out of the 120,000 Hungarian Jewish lives that were saved, Wallenberg is credited with saving around 100,000. Unfortunately and tragically, the fate of Raoul Wallenberg is a mystery. In early 1945, he had tried to contact the Soviet Union in an attempt to obtain food for the Jews he was still protecting in Hungary. Wallenberg left for a meeting with Marshal Malinovsky, a Russian commander, accompanied by his driver but never returned. There have been unclear accounts of his possible fate over the decades but none have ever been confirmed.
The commemoration of Wallenberg began in 2011 with the creation of the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission by Ezra Friedlander under the chairmanship of Peter Rebenwurzel in collaborative partnership with the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation which spearheaded the effort to honor Raoul Wallenberg with a Congressional Gold Medal. Legislation was introduced in Representatives Gregory Meeks and Nan Heyworth and by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Mark Kirk, and unanimously passed in 2012.