WASHINGTON (JTA) — King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew unveiled the Raoul Wallenberg Congressional Gold Medal.
The medal unveiled Thursday morning at the U.S. Treasury in Washington is inscribed with "hero of heroes" beneath the likeness of the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
On the flip side, a depiction of a hand distributing the protective passports that Wallenberg distributed among Hungarian Jews is accompanied by the text, "He lives on forever through those he saved" and "One person makes a difference."
Lew in his remarks noted that Wallenberg traveled to Hungary as part of an effort initiated by the U.S. War Refugee Board to protect Hungary's Jews; the board was founded at the behest of Henry Morgenthau, like Lew, a Jewish U.S. treasury secretary.
"It is fitting that we are gathered here at the Treasury Department, just two floors below the very rooms in which the War Refugee Board was established, to pay tribute to Raoul Wallenberg," Lew said. "A man who chose not to be indifferent to the suffering around him. Who put his own career and life at risk to arrange for the rescue of people he did not know, and whose legacy of courage and self-sacrifice touched not just the men and women that he was able to help, but also future generations."
Also present at the ceremony were members of Wallenberg's family and Annette Lantos, the widow of Rep. Tom lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor who was saved by Wallenberg and led the effort in 1981 to confer honorary U.S. citizenship on the diplomat.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) initiated the legislation that awarded the medal, also spoke at the ceremony.
A broad range of Jewish community groups convened as the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission voted to advocate for the recognition in 2012, the centenary of Wallenberg's birth. The commission was spearheaded by the Friedlander Group, a lobbying outfit.
Wallenberg 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.
Past honorees, who need not be Americans, 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.