Senate bill seeks to honor diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust

Sens. Bill Hagerty and Tim Kaine are aiming to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to 60 World War II-era diplomats who helped save Jews

Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

Raoul Wallenberg - Swedish architect, businessman and diplomat, who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust in German-occupied Hungary.

Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) are set to introduce a bill today, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that would grant a Congressional Gold Medal to 60 World War II-era diplomats who helped save Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, Jewish Insider has learned.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award that Congress can grant, and must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of each chamber before it can be brought for a vote. It was recently bestowed on Ben Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor. The legislation specifically highlights diplomats — primarily from foreign countries, but also a few Americans — for securing passports and setting up safehouses and routes out of Europe, often at great personal risk and in defiance of instructions from their governments.

“The Congressional Gold Medal authorized under this Act will help remind humanity that when the diplomats were faced with terrible crises, they went beyond the fold, including risking their careers and the lives of themselves and their families, to engage in this humanitarian mission,” the bill reads. “The diplomats of today and future generations can look towards these heroes and be inspired by their lives of heroism and sacrifice.”

Hagerty, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, said in a statement that “these 60 diplomats were beacons of light during a time of unimaginable darkness in the world, and by their individual acts of hope and bravery, saved the lives of so many.”

Kaine added, “The world will forever grapple with the dark questions of the Holocaust — how did so many participate in it, how did so many turn a blind eye to it, how can we be vigilant in never letting it happen again. Today, ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us also shine history’s spotlight on these unsung heroes who did not turn a blind eye and who used every means at their disposal to save lives. Let us honor and learn from these diplomats’ heroic actions under extremely difficult circumstances.”

Companion legislation is set to be introduced in the House, sponsored by Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), whose district includes a significant number of Holocaust survivors, and Ritchie Torres (D-NY), who has close ties with the Jewish community, according to lobbyist Ezra Friedlander, whose Project Legacy nonprofit is organizing initiative.

Abe Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a chair of the Forgotten Heroes of the Holocaust Congressional Gold Medal Committee supporting the effort, told JI that he feels it’s important to focus on the “courageous, decent people” who emerged from the Holocaust, not only the “evil people, hateful people.”

“I survived the Holocaust because there was a Roman Catholic Polish woman who risked her life to save mine. And so the issue of rescuers, the issue of the righteous, to me has always been an important element of my growing up,” Foxman said. “I never said goodbye or thank you to my nanny, so any effort that I could be involved in to recognize the decency and the courage of good people, I have difficulty saying no to.”

“Their heroism and courage was very significant, and I think it’s a very important moral message to us,” he added. In a statement, he described the approaching 80th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust as a key time to educate the next generation, and this legislation as a “teaching moment.”

Foxman also noted the irony that many of the diplomats’ host countries were opposed to their actions at the time, but now are “happy to embrace them and recognize them.”

Art Reidel, a businessman and philanthropist who co-chairs the committee, added in a statement in a statement, “I believe that in today’s world it may be more important to celebrate goodness and human decency than to just to condemn evil… We must teach future generations not only about the evil that man inflicted on man but also the courage and heroism of a small number of decent, moral public servants — diplomats who frequently violated their own countries’ rules in order to save Jews.”

Few non-Americans have been honored with Congressional Gold Medals before, and passage of the bill would place the diplomats among the ranks of figures including Winston Churchill, Shimon Peres, Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela and former Canadian Ambassador to Iran Kenneth Taylor, who helped American embassy officials escape Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis. Perhaps the best-known diplomat on the list, Raoul Wallenberg, received an individual Congressional Gold Medal in 2012.

Friedlander said he approached Hagerty about the legislation given his background as a diplomat and Kaine due to his work on Holocaust issues in Virginia. Mordecai Paldiel, a historian at Yeshiva University and Queens College and the former director of the Department of the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem, contributed research to the project.

“At the beginning of 2025, we will be marking the 80th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps, and subsequently, what is now called the Holocaust,” Friedlander said. “So we felt that to teach the next generation requires something that they could wrap their hands around… [The diplomats] were in power but yet they were not given the mandate of saving Jews, so they risked and they accomplished so much.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.