Holocaust Hero Wallenberg to Be Awarded Congressional Medal
Hamodia coverage of the Congressional Celebratory Luncheon of the Raoul Wallenberg Legislation
by Rachel Hubner
Amidst the horror and devastation that was World War II, the Jews of Hungary remained largely untouched until May of 1944, when Germany began to deport its Jewish citizens to Auschwitz. By July, almost 438,000 innocent people had been taken to their deaths. Although America’s pleas— however late in coming — for international assistance went largely unanswered, one country did respond. That country was Sweden, and their chosen emissary: a man named Raoul Wallenberg.
By providing many of the remaining Hungarian Jews with Swedish passports and, when those ran out, the Shutzpass, a document of his own invention, Wallenberg — brazenly and diligently — saved approximately 100,000 Jews.
An exact number is not known, but what is clear is that tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children — descendants of those Hungarian refugees — are alive today thanks to one man’s incomparable bravery and hero- ism in the face of what is arguably the most sinister brand of evil the world has ever known. Wallenberg worked tirelessly until his still-unexplained disappearance in 1945; it is largely believed that he died alone while under Soviet captivity.
On Wednesday, July 11, in a historic vote, legislation was passed to award Wallenberg a Congressional Gold Medal in celebration of the centennial of his birth on August 4. The bill was introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and co- sponsored by 70 other senators, including its original co-sponsors, Senators Kirk, Johanns and Levin. In the House of Representatives, the bill was introduced by Representatives Hayworth and Meeks.
An event to celebrate this pas- sage was held later that day, on Capitol Hill. Among those present to take part in this momentous occasion were the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission’s Board of Governors: Mr. Andrew Stevens, who valiantly worked alongside Wallenberg in Budapest when he was a mere 16 years old; Mr. Ken Abramowitz; Mr. Abe Biderman; Mr. Emil Fish; Mr. Charles Freeman; Mr. Leon Goldenberg; Mr. Sidney Greenberger; Mr. Ben Hoffman; Dr. David Moskovits; Mr. William Nussen; Mr. Peter Rebenwurzel; Mr. Stanley Treitel; and Mr. Erol User. The Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission was spearheaded by The Friedlander Group, a public affairs advisory boutique firm with offices in New York and Washington, D.C.
Special tribute was made to the Wallenberg Commission’s corporate sponsors: The Claims Conference, in recognition of 60 years of service to Holocaust survivors; Project Witness, a comprehensive non-profit Holocaust resource center directed by Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein; HealthPlus – AmeriGroup, which was represented at the luncheon by Mr. Jonathan Zalisky and Ms. Kathryn Soman; Flushing Bank; and AllCar Rent-A-Car, which was represented by Mr. Gil Cygler. The luncheon was co-chaired by L.A. Fire Commissioner Andrew Friedman, Esq., a prominent sponsor of the restoration of Hungary’s Kiskunfelegyhaza Cemetery.
After lauding the Commission’s Board of Governors for their commitment to the Congressional legislation, Ezra Friedlander introduced the roster of speakers, which included Senators Barraso, Gillibrand, Isakson, Hatch, Lautenberg, and Wyden; and Representatives Long, Nadler, Turner and Waxman; Holocaust survivors; and children of Holocaust survivors. The following are brief summaries of a select number of speeches:
Peter Rebenwurzel, Chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission, is a Hungarian-born child of Holocaust survivors. His father, z”l, worked with Wallenberg to provide food and provisions to residents of the Budapest ghetto, and his father in-law was saved by Wallenberg.
He said that when Ezra Friedlander asked him to introduce Andrew Stevens, he asked “Who is Andrew Stevens?” In response, he was given a copy of Andrew Steven’s book, Rebel With a Cause. In it, Mr. Stevens describes how, at the young age of 16, he worked alongside Wallenberg in 1944 Budapest. Amazed by the heroism displayed by one so young, Mr. Rebenwurzel was honored to present Mr. Stevens with an award.
It was an emotional Andrew Stevens who was helped to the podium by Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a renowned historian who specializes in Holocaust remembrance. With a catch in his voice, Mr. Stevens brought many of those in attendance to tears when he stated that his being honored at the event was truly unnecessary because what he did during the war was what anyone would do if they saw another human being jump in front of a train — they would reach out to save him. That, he said, is all he did when he assisted Mr. Wallenberg with his rescue activities.
Also honored at the luncheon was Mr. Stanley Treitel, a prominent member of the Los Angeles community.
Emil Fish, Founder of the Bardejov Jewish Preservation Committee, spoke about his work to preserve and create a memorial to Holocaust survivors in Bardejov.
In 1992, Dr. David Moskovits, President of the Endowment for Democracy in Eastern Europe, established The American Endowment School, where Jewish children from throughout Eastern Europe have the ability to receive a quality education. Dr. Moskovits was introduced by Mrs. Gabriella Friedlander, a onetime student of The American Endowment School, who spoke about how meaningful Dr. Moskovits’s presence has been and continues to be in her life.
Ms. Matty Lichtenstein, who served as Executive Editor of the monumental textbook, Witness to History, spoke about her work at Project Witness.
In her speech, Ms. Lichtenstein spoke of how the Holocaust’s far-reaching ramifications affected her life as a second- generation survivor.
“I was raised in a home still permeated with memories of the Nazi regime,” she said. “… The Holocaust shadowed our lives as a sense of bewildering and immeasurable loss, one that I never really knew how to face.”
Ms. Lichtenstein explained how her work on Project Witness has enabled her to use those unnerving childhood experiences to reach out to those still suffering from that collective anguish, a fact that made her presence at the day’s celebration particularly poignant: “
As part of our commitment to comprehensive historical scholarship, our work in Project Witness focuses on the values Jews held dear during the Holocaust: steadfast compassion for the weak and needy, devotion to religious traditions, a commitment to intellectual engagement — and the strength required to sustain such ideals in the face of the Nazis’ systematic and brutal efforts to destroy this heritage.
“Raoul Wallenberg embodied these values. By his very status as a Swedish diplomat, a foreigner and outsider to a people he came to save, his actions emphasize these values’ universality, humankind’s common obligation to stand up for those who are suffering.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand went out of her way to attend the luncheon and spoke to those assembled about how meaningful achieving this legislation has been to her over the past several months. It is thanks to Senator Gillibrand that the legislation was pushed through. To convey their thanks, the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission’s Board of Governors presented the Senator with a copy of Witness to History, which was written by Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein.
It was an emotional yet satisfying day, one that participants will long remember. The Raoul Wallenberg Congressional Gold Medal will be molded by the U.S. Mint at some point this year, with an official ceremony taking place at a later date, to be scheduled accordingly.