The honors hero Raoul Wallenberg deserves

WASHINGTON – No honor or accolade is equal to the debt the world owes Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped save thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II.

But it is important for us to give whatever is within our power to give. That’s why I was proud recently to participate in ceremonies honoring Wallenberg with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can bestow.

Wallenberg’s life is a reminder that the values we so often take for granted are not guaranteed. The rights we hold to be universal, not just for Americans, but for all human beings – the universe does not grant them to us without cost. All of us must honor them, shelter them and protect them. They are, as our founding fathers said, inalienable – but that does not make them indestructible.

If it’s true that we are all stewards of these universal rights, it is also true that the universe sometimes asks extraordinary things of some of us in order to fulfill that duty. Extraordinary things were asked of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg helped shelter as many as 100,000 Jews from the Holocaust, even after repeated warnings that he was risking his life.

Astonishingly, Wallenberg’s gift to our world is not limited to the thousands he saved from Hitler’s executioners. It extends to all of us here today who must ask ourselves: If this man could risk so much and eventually give his own life in the defense of others, how can I shrink from my own responsibilities to my fellow man? Raoul Wallenberg’s gift is the lives he himself saved and in what he inspires us to do.

It is hard to imagine that anything could intensify the tragedy of the Holocaust, and yet Wallenberg’s story does. The Nazis were driven from Hungary before they could stop his efforts. But when Soviet troops captured Budapest in 1945, they arrested Wallenberg, and he was never seen again. Soviet authorities claimed in 1957 that Wallenberg had died a decade before.

And then in 1976, a prisoner released from a Soviet prison camp said that he had met a Swede, imprisoned for 30 years, but still alive. News of the report gave new hope that Wallenberg might yet be alive.

Many tried to follow these and other clues to learn this hero’s fate. I was among them; I traveled to Israel and spoke with the daughter of the prisoner about his whereabouts so that I could speak to her father. But she would not provide the information because she feared retribution against her father, and with good reason: the Soviets had already re-arrested him once after the first reports of his sighting of Wallenberg came out.

She could not overcome her fear for her father. Most of us could not overcome such fear if a loved one was in jeopardy. That vignette serves, once again, to make Raoul Wallenberg’s courage in the face of fear all the more awe-inspiring.

It does not seem too much to ask after all this time for President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government to finally put these questions to rest. All that continued Russian stonewalling can accomplish is the infliction of continued pain on the Wallenberg family and the perpetuation of an injustice that added a tragic coda to the abomination of the Holocaust.

Providing information on Raoul Wallenberg’s fate cannot lessen the horror of the Holocaust. It cannot erase the heinous crime of Wallenberg’s arrest, nor turn back the clock on the horrific acts Wallenberg fought against or those done to him. But that is no excuse for inaction.

Raoul Wallenberg could not save every Jew, and he could not end the Holocaust, but he did what all of us should do: He did what he could. So should we all. And so should the Russian government, which should provide full and immediate access to all records on Wallenberg’s arrest, imprisonment and death.

That simple, human decency is the very least the world owes Raoul Wallenberg.

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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.