Monday, February 11, 2008
Only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, died this morning
Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, dead at 80
By Lisa Fernandez and Mark Gomez
Article Launched: 02/11/2008 06:37:15 AM PST
Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, died early Monday after a six-week fight with cancer, his spokeswoman said.
Spokeswoman Lynne Weil said this morning that the 80-year-old Lantos died at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in suburban Maryland. He was surrounded by his wife Annette Lantos, daughters Annette and Katrina, and many of his 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
His wife said in a statement that her husband's life was "defined by courage, optimism, and unwavering dedication to his principles and to his family."
After being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in late December, the San Mateo Democrat announced he would not seek re-election in his district, which takes in the southwest portion of San Francisco and suburbs to the south including Lantos' home of San Mateo. Lantos, who became chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee last year, intended to finish his 14th two-year term while undergoing treatment.
"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," Lantos said earlier this year. "I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country."
Earlier this year, former state Senator Jackie Speier launched her campaign to run for Lantos' seat, apparently, the only serious Democratic contender for the spot at this point.
In a statement, House speaker Nancy Pelosi said: "The passing of Tom Lantos is a profound loss for the Congress and for the nation and a terrible loss for me personally." "As the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, Tom Lantos devoted his life to shining a bright light on dark corners of oppression. . . . Having lived through the worst evil known to mankind, Tom Lantos translated the experience into a lifetime commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism, Holocaust education, and a commitment to the state of Israel."
Many Jewish groups mourned the death of a congressman who helped champion causes dear to their hearts.
"For years people have looked to Congressman Tom Lantos as the conscience of the United States Congress," said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director for the the New York-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "He rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to the hallowed halls of Congress."
Two years ago, Gutow and Lantos were both in Washington, D.C. protesting outside the Sudanese embassy against the current genocide in Darfur. Both were arrested for trespassing, handcuffed, put into a van, and taken to jail for a few hours.
"I looked at his face, and saw something deep, sort of haunting," Gutow said in a phone interview today. "I remember the depths of emotion I was feeling about him. Here's a man who suffered so greatly and now was so willing to open himself up, and in some ways, relive what had happened to him during the Holocaust, you know, shoved into a van like that. He was one of a kind. He was truly an important figure, his kind won't come for a long time, maybe ever again."
Even those who had once challenged him for his political seat had only praise for him, too.
Ro Khanna, 31, ran against the veteran congressman in the 2004 Democratic primary, even though the young San Francisco attorney knew it'd be a "longshot" to unseat the popular politician. At the time, Khanna was driven by the desire of the larger Indo-American community in Silicon Valley to have one of their own representing them in Washington.
"The day after Tom Lantos won, he invited me for breakfast and said, 'Young man, you ran a very spirited campaign," Khanna recalled Lantos saying. "You have a bright future. Don't quit on yourself. Keep building your Indo-American base.' He became a mentor. He just had such graciousness that spoke volumes. He's one of the most brilliant people I've met, and among the most substantive. He had a statesmanship that very few politicians have in today's day and age. It was one of biggest privileges in my life to have run against him." The last time Khanna saw Lantos face to face was a few months ago in San Francisco at a fundraiser for Pelosi.
The timing of Lantos' diagnosis was a particular blow because he had assumed his committee chairmanship just a year earlier, when Democrats retook control of Congress. He said then that in a sense his whole life had been a preparation for the job.
Born Feb. 1, 1928 in Budapest to a middle-class Jewish family, Lantos was 16 when the Nazis occupied Hungary and sent him to a labor camp. He escaped twice and eventually made it to a safe house run by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. With most of his family killed by the Nazis, Lantos joined the resistance. He arrived in the United States in 1947 on a college scholarship, earned a master's degree in economics at the University of Washington and a doctorate in economics at the University of California-Berkeley. Lantos taught for 30 years at San Francisco State University before winning a congressional seat in 1980.
In Congress, Lantos has spoken out for civil liberties, based on his commanding knowledge of world affairs. Lantos co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983. In early 2004 he led the first congressional delegation to Libya in more than 30 years, meeting personally with Moammar Gadhafi and urging the Bush administration to show "good faith" to the North African leader in his pledge to abandon his nuclear weapons programs. Later that year, President Bush lifted sanctions against Libya.
Since becoming chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs a year ago, he has advocated tirelessly for human rights in China, Russia, Burma and Darfur. Late last year, he assailed Yahoo executives for handing over the identity of a Chinese activist, telling them in not quite politically correct fashion: "Morally, you are pygmies."
The date for a public memorial service has not yet been set.