By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– A United States Congressional delegation and other officials have gathered in Hungary’s capital Budapest to remember Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving the lives of as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews during World War II. Friday’s commemoration was part of a series of events marking the Raoul Wallenberg Year to commemorate his centennial birth.
On a chilly day, representatives of the U.S. Congress and other officials laid a wreath at the Budapest monument of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, hidden behind old trees.
While serving as Swedish envoy in Budapest from July 1944, Wallenberg gave Hungarian Jews Swedish travel documents and set up safe houses for them.
Among the thousands he saved was the late Tom Lantos, who was the first Holocaust survivor to be elected to the U.S. Congress.
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Wallenberg is also credited with dissuading German officers from massacring the 70,000 inhabitants of Budapest’s main Jewish ghetto.
Republican Representative Dan Burton, who led the Congressional Delegation, described Wallenberg as a special humanitarian. “Raoul Wallenberg is one of those people that throughout history is very, very rare. He risked his life, saved over 100,000 people and paid dearly for it,” he said.
It was a reference to the difficult life of the young diplomat. Wallenberg eventually died in what was the Soviet Union where he had been taken by the invading Soviet Red Army, recalled the political director of Hungary’s Foreign Ministry, Peter Sztaray.
“Wallenberg fought against a dictatorship and consequently disappeared in the prisons of another totalitarian power, the Soviet Communist regime,” he said.
Moscow claims he died of a heart attack on June 17, 1947, in Soviet custody, but unverified witness accounts and newly uncovered evidence suggest he may have lived beyond that date.
Last month, Sweden announced it wants to reopen an investigation into Wallenberg’s disappearance. Whatever the outcome of that research, the United States has already made Wallenberg an honorary citizen.
It’s a rare honor that was only bestowed on two other persons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Mother Theresa.
MEDAL OF HONOR
And, marking the Raoul Wallenberg Year commemorating his 100th year of birth, U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks, a Democrat, wants to go even further.
“I have the privilege along with Nan Hayworth in the United States to sponsor a bill to give him the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest medal that the U.S. Congress can give,“ he said.
Friday’s ceremony comes amid concerns over growing far-right extremism and religious tensions in Hungary, as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the world.
In a statement to BosNewsLife, the US Congressional delegation said it had spoken with Hungary’s government about “the principle of equal treatment for all religious organizations” amid concerns over a recently adopted law that recognizes just 14 of hundreds of religious groups as “churches”.
Sweden’s Chargé d’Affaires, Eddy Fonyodi, said at Friday’s ceremony that issues such as religious intolerance shows Wallenberg’s work isn’t finished yet. “As long as minorities are discriminated against, as long as democracy and freedom of speech is threatened, as long as anti-semitism, Islamophobia or xenophobia still exists, Raoul Wallenberg’s ideals are not fulfilled and his work is not done,” he said.
About 600,000 Hungarian Jews died during World War II, when Hungary for the most part was a close ally of Nazi Germany.
There is frustration in Hungary that there is still no known grave of Raoul Wallenberg to lay flowers.