Tom Lantos, the lone Holocaust survivor to serve in America’s Congress, died Monday morning after a battle with cancer of the esophagus. He was 80.
Lantos, a Democrat, was first elected in 1981 from a district near San Francisco. Since then, he had risen up to become the democratic party’s leading voice on human rights, as well as an ardent defender of Israel.
Lantos was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1928. He was 16 years old when Germany occupied his native country in 1944, and shortly afterward, Lantos — a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed teenager — was placed in a Hungarian fascist forced labor camp.
“The bulk of the Jews of Budapest were utterly assimilated,” he once said in an interview for a documentary about the Holocaust. “Many of them, like my family, were deeply patriotic and included military officers, university professors, writers, and they were enormously proud of their Hungarian heritage.”
Lantos eventually escaped from the camp and was able to enter a safe house in Budapest that was set up by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. He then served as a messenger, passing information between safe houses.
After the war, Lantos was awarded an academic scholarship to study in the United States on the basis of an essay he wrote about then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In August 1947, he arrived in New York City after a boat trip on a converted World War II troop ship. Onboard “there was a big basket of oranges and one of bananas,” Lantos recalled. “I wanted to do the right thing, so I asked this sailor, ‘Should I take an orange or a banana?’ And he said, ‘Man, you eat all the goddamn oranges and all the goddamn bananas you want.’ Then I knew I was in paradise.”
After attending the University of Washington in Seattle as an undergraduate, Lantos moved to San Francisco in 1950 and began studies for a doctorate in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. For three decades, Lantos was a professor of economics and an international affairs analyst for public television, as well as a senior adviser to members of the United States Senate (including Joseph Biden).
Lantos was first elected to Congress in November 1980, becoming the only Democrat to defeat an un-indicted incumbent Republican in the year of the Ronald Reagan landslide. His gratitude toward the man who saved his life during World War II inspired him to propose as his first bill in Congress that Wallenberg be given honorary American citizenship (previously, only Winston Churchill had been so honored). Lantos later led the charge to create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and made sure the street outside was called Raoul Wallenberg Place.
In recent years, Lantos’s greatest mark has been in the foreign policy realm. He was a vigorous advocate of human rights, founding the Human Rights Caucus, and a hawk (though not an uncritical one) when it came to Israel and America’s military moves in the Middle East.
When Lantos retired last month after announcing his illness, he said, “It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress.”
While Lantos proudly wore his Jewish identity in public life, his private life was a more complicated matter. Lantos married his childhood sweetheart and fellow Holocaust survivor, Annette Tillemann, who was a Jew by birth but a Mormon by choice. Their two daughters were both raised in the Mormon faith.
Lantos’s wife worked side by side with him on Jewish causes, but the congressman’s private engagement with Mormonism made many in the Jewish community uncomfortable, and Lantos generally declined to talk about his own private religious practice. When Lantos first came to office, Jewish institutional leaders did not quite know how to deal with him and his wife, most especially when Annette Lantos referred to the Jewish people with the possessive “we.”
Still, Lantos left no question that in public he was a Jew. In his official biography, Lantos listed his religion as Jewish. His death this week was met by a profuse outpouring of praise from Jewish organizations and politicians spanning the partisan spectrum.
“Having lived through the worst evil known to mankind, Tom Lantos translated the experience into a lifetime commitment to the fight against antisemitism, Holocaust education, and a commitment to the State of Israel,” said California Democrat Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, in a statement. Pelosi’s congressional district borders Lantos’s.