U.S. President Barack Obama joined Jewish leaders and relatives of Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving at least 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm. A Swedish diplomat serving in Budapest, Hungary, Wallenberg risked his life to issue protective passports and shelter Jews in Swedish diplomatic buildings.
"Because he refused to stand by, Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose not simply to bear witness, but also to act," Obama said. His words invoked the deadly civil war in Syria and Obama's call for a global intervention to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad from using chemical weapons against his people.
In the synagogue's vast, ornate sanctuary, Obama stood under the "eternal flame" that hangs in most Jewish houses of worship above the arc that holds the Torah. The Great Synagogue's flame hasn't been extinguished since 1870, officials said.
Arrayed before Obama were artifacts from Wallenberg's life: his daily calendar, passport and family photos. In quiet tones, he reflected on the artifacts with Wallenberg's half-sister, Nina Lagergren, and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Obama and Reinfeldt then stepped into the synagogue's sunny courtyard, where an immense, teal-colored menorah stood in front of a memorial wall engraved with the names of more than 8,000 Holocaust victims. The president laid a stone, joining in a custom carried out by Jewish mourners all across the world.
"He's beloved in both our countries. He's one of the links that binds us together," Obama said, noting that Wallenberg had studied in the U.S.
Jews around the world on Wednesday were marking the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, a day of prayer and celebration that kicks off a 10-day period of meditative introspection in the Jewish faith.
Obama's visit was history-making for the Swedes. Never before had a sitting American president set foot in their country.
"This is a historic event," Reinfeldt declared at the start of his joint news conference with Obama.
Clusters of waving and picture-taking people lined grassy strips along the highway as Obama's motorcade sped away from the airport. Near the capital, people stood on balconies outside offices and apartment buildings, gathered along Lake Malaren or hung themselves out of windows in hopes of catching a fleeting glimpse of Obama.
But not all Swedes were thrilled by Obama's presence.
Thousands of people, including left-wing activists opposed to U.S. foreign policy and Internet freedom advocates protesting U.S. surveillance programs, gathered for a peaceful demonstration. Protesters from Amnesty International demanded that Obama close the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We want to remind him how utterly he has failed to achieve his own visions," said 22-year-old student Simon Lindgren.
Meanwhile, rival groups of Syrian immigrants, both for and against President Bashar Assad, shouted at each other and were separated by police. Sweden has received nearly 15,000 asylum-seekers from Syria since last year.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now