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The 15Th Annual Wallenberg Medal

Sen. Carl Levin

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Mr. President, last Tuesday evening, the University of Michigan presented Paul Rusesabagina with its 15th Annual Wallenberg Medal. As my colleagues may remember, Mr. Rusesabagina was the subject of the movie ``Hotel Rwanda.''

The Wallenberg Medal is named for University of Michigan alumnus and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg. After receiving his degree in architecture in 1935, he spent time in several jobs in South Africa and Palestine before moving to Sweden in 1941 to work for a Jewish Hungarian businessman named Kalman Lauer. Lauer operated an export-import firm which did business in Central Europe, a large portion of which took place in Hungary. As the Nazis continued to gain power in Europe, Lauer found it increasingly difficult to travel and turned over control of his foreign division to Wallenberg. In 1944, Wallenberg was approached by the American War Refugee Board to take part in a plan to assist Jews in Budapest who were in danger of falling victim to the holocaust.

Wallenberg agreed to take part in the project and was sent to Budapest as a representative of the Swedish Government. In Budapest, Wallenberg hired several hundred Jews to staff his office, bringing them under the diplomatic protection of Sweden. Additionally, he created a new official looking Swedish passport, known as the ``Schutzpass.'' Wallenberg gave the Schutzpass to thousands of Hungarian Jews and said that it granted the holder immunity from Nazi deportation. The Schutzpass deceived the Nazis and may have saved the lives of as many as 20,000 Jews.

Wallenberg is also known to have rented 32 buildings in Budapest, which he declared to be under the diplomatic protection of the Swedish Government. Using his architectural education from the University of Michigan, he took space designed to hold no more than 5,000 people and turned it into housing for more than 35,000 Jews. These ``safe houses'' provided a refuge of last resort for thousands who would have otherwise disappeared into Nazi death camps.

There are numerous stories of Wallenberg's courage and heroism throughout the last few years of World War II. Despite repeated threats and attempts on his life, he persevered and continued his work to save as many Jews as possible. Wallenberg is best known for skillful negotiation and fearless confrontation of Nazi soldiers who threatened the safety of those he was working to protect. Tragically, Wallenberg disappeared soon after Soviet soldiers took control of Budapest.

While the circumstances surrounding Wallenberg's disappearance are still unclear, the tens of thousands of Jews he saved from certain death will never forget his brave actions. The University of Michigan created the Wallenberg Medal in 1990 to honor his memory and recognize other outstanding humanitarian leaders. Each year the Wallenberg Medal is presented to an individual who has exhibited extraordinary respect for human rights on behalf of those subjected to persecution. Medal recipients are chosen to honor their self-sacrifice, integrity, and courage in standing up to an oppressive majority. Following the presentation, the Wallenberg Medal recipient is invited to address an audience of students, faculty, and members of the community regarding their experiences and humanitarian work. Past Wallenberg Medal recipients include the Dalai Lama, Nobel-laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, and other extraordinary humanitarians.

This year's Wallenberg Medal recipient Paul Rusesabagina has certainly exhibited qualities worthy of such a high honor. Rusesabagina was the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda in 1994 when the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana pushed an already tense situation in the country over the edge. Radical ethnic Hutus began rounding up and murdering their Tutsi rivals as well as other moderate Hutus who did not support their actions. It is estimated that nearly one million people were killed in the violence in only 100 days.

Paul Rusesabagina did not stand by and watch as his countrymen were murdered. As a well-connected Hutu, Rusesabagina was spared persecution. However, his wife, a Tutsi, and his children were not safe. He moved them from his home to the Hotel des Mille Collines where he believed they would be safer. As the violence intensified, he opened the hotel to hundreds of other Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike, who were seeking to escape the violence outside. In the following months, there were numerous attempts to force those at the hotel out into the streets of Kigali. Each time, Rusesabagina used his international connections through the hotel or with the Rwandan military in combination with keen negotiation skills to spare the lives of those he was caring for. Amazingly, no one who took shelter inside the hotel was killed in the violence. In all, Paul Rusesabagina and the Hotel des Mille Collines protected the lives of more than 1,200 people during the genocide.

Prior to the award ceremony last Tuesday, Paul Rusesabagina was reunited with one of the many who took shelter at the Hotel des Mille Collines. According to reports, Thomas Kamilindi was working as a journalist in Kigali when violence broke out in 1994. Kamilindi, his pregnant wife and young daughter stayed at the hotel for a month and a half until they were evacuated. Kamilindi credits Paul Rusesabagina with saving his life and the lives of his family. The meeting last Tuesday was the first since Kamilindi and his family were evacuated more than 10 years ago. Following their meeting, Kamilindi said, ``It was very emotional for him and for me. I am still alive because Paul was there.'' Kamilindi is currently a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan where he is studying representations of violence in the media.

Paul Rusesabagina's courageous actions closely resemble those of Raoul Wallenberg 50 years before. Both men stood in the face of great adversity to protect those who were not able to protect themselves. Like Wallenberg, Rusesabagina provided a shelter of last resort to innocent civilians facing persecution, many of whom he did not know personally prior to the violence. In addition, both men fought off potential violence not by meeting force with force, but by using persuasion, influence, and negotiation instead.

I thank the University of Michigan for adding to the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg by recognizing the contributions of other great humanitarians like Paul Rusesabagina. I know my colleagues will join me in congratulating Paul Rusesabagina on this great honor.