WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. Senate voted unanimously to award Raoul Wallenberg the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the Congress.
The vote Wednesday is part of an effort to confer the honor upon Wallenberg in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth in August. The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved awarding the medal in April. The measure now goes to President Obama for his signature.
“Raoul Wallenberg’s courageous actions were a shining example of selfless heroism at a time when others stood mute in the face of unimaginable horror,” said Kathy Manning, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America, which was among the groups advocating for the medal. “That this legislation passed with such broad bipartisan support is a reflection of how deserving Raoul Wallenberg is of the Congressional Gold Medal.”
The legislation was introduced in September by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).
A broad range of Jewish community groups convened as the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission to advocate for the recognition. The commission was spearheaded by the Friedlander Group, a lobbying outfit.
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 Aung San Suu Kyi.