STOCKHOLM (AP) — During President Barack Obama’s somber stop at a synagogue to honor a Holocaust-era hero, the allusions to a more modern world crisis were clear.
At the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, Obama joined Jewish leaders and relatives of Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving at least 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust. 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.
The diplomat mysteriously disappeared after being arrested in the 1945 by Soviet forces. Wallenberg’s family has been pressing Obama to seek answers about Wallenberg’s fate when he visits Russia later in the week.
Jews around the world on Wednesday were marking the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, a day of prayer and celebration that kicks off a 10-day period of meditative introspection in the Jewish faith.
There were all the trappings of a school science fair, with President Barack Obama as the judge.
Professors and university officials from Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden’s premier technical university, put their cutting-edge projects on display for Obama’s inspection at an event highlighting Sweden’s focus on cleaner energy and its goal to become the world’s first nation to phase out fossil fuels by 2050.
In the sun-splashed atrium of the university’s library, Obama moved down the row one by one, examining the elaborate projects and quizzing researchers on their real-world applications.
Standing in front of what looks like a black car battery but actually is used to filter and sterilize water, Obama asked what it would cost to distribute the units in developing areas in Africa and Asia. The answer: About $100 a piece.
At each stop, Obama sought to put himself in the shoes of a typical end-user. He asked one researcher what the product would mean for him economically if he were a small-business owner or a farmer. Surveying new hybrid technology to power buses, he asked whether it would be financially viable if he were operating a fleet of 50 buses. And chatting about electric cars, he inquired about the chicken-and-egg problem with distribution in the U.S.
“If I’m going to go shopping, where am I going to get fuel?” Obama asked.
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.
Visiting a foreign capital, Obama didn’t seem to miss his own capital very much.
He praised Swedish politics, saying the ruling and opposition parties appear to engage in “a respectful and rational debate that’s based on facts and issues.”
He didn’t specify who he was comparing the Swedes to, but the implication was clear.
“You know, I have to say that if I were here in Europe, I’d probably be considered right in the middle, maybe center left, maybe center right, depending on the country,” Obama said at the news conference when a Swedish reporter noted that he sometimes is accused of wanting to turn the U.S. into Sweden, a country with a generous welfare system and taxes that account for about half of the economy.
“In the United States sometimes the names I’m called are quite different,” he said.
Police were investigating the discovery of a gun at a hotel in central Stockholm.
Spokesman Varg Gyllander said security staff at the Hotel Hilton alerted police Wednesday after finding the Sig Sauer firearm.
As it turned out, the gun belonged to a Swedish police officer on duty as part of the Obama “command.”
Gyllander said the officer forgot the weapon at the hotel. He said the incident was under investigation as a potential service irregularity.
Obama was spending the night at a different hotel.
Associated Press writers Malin Rising and Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Jim Kuhnhenn and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.