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Obituaries / Tom Lantos, 1928 - 2008

Member of Congress had survived Nazi labor camp

February 12, 2008|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, died Monday of complications from cancer of the esophagus at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, his staff said. He was 80.

A champion of civil liberties, Lantos founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and supported human rights struggles against both right-wing and left-wing regimes in China, Russia, Myanmar, Darfur and wherever official pressure could, as he put it, "prevent another Holocaust." He also was passionate about animal rights, working to stop seal hunts, dog killings in foreign countries, and horse slaughter, bear baiting and the operation of puppy mills at home.

He also used his post as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to highlight human rights violators. He argued that nations with bad records had no place on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, that Beijing should not be awarded the 2008 Olympics because of its human rights record, and that corporations had an obligation to protect individuals and press freedoms. When executives of Yahoo Inc. appeared before the committee last year to defend their role in the jailing of a journalist by Chinese officials, Lantos said, "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are Pygmies."

Vigilant against appeasement in foreign policy -- whether the culprit was Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Saddam Hussein -- Lantos was a supporter of the Iraq war even though his 12th Congressional District, stretching from southwest San Francisco down the peninsula to take in much of San Mateo County, was overwhelmingly opposed. Although he led the debate for authorization of the campaign to oust Hussein in 2002, he later became disillusioned with faulty prewar intelligence and called for an independent investigation into what went wrong.

"The American people have not sent us here just to be an amen cho- rus for this administration," he said when he finally rose to criticize the war. "There are serious problems and we should be debating serious solutions."

Last year he opposed the surge of extra troops in Iraq, telling Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was lobbying Congress for support: "Our efforts in Iraq are a mess, and throwing in more troops will not improve it."

Lantos, a staunch supporter of Israel, led a U.S. walkout from a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 over its anti-Semitic language. But he also was an advocate of talking to renegade regimes. He was among the first members of Congress to visit Libya in 2004, lauding Moammar Kadafi's renunciation of weapons of mass destruction. And when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) met with Syrian President Bashar Assad last year, Lantos was at her side. "Dialogue," he said, "is not appeasement."

Pelosi, calling his death "a profound loss for the Congress and for the nation and a terrible loss for me personally," said in a statement Monday that Lantos had used his chairmanship "to empower the powerless and give voice to the voiceless throughout the world. Having lived through the worst evil known to mankind, Tom Lantos translated the experience into a lifetime commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism."

Born Feb. 1, 1928, to a middle-class family in Budapest, Hungary, Lantos was 16 when Nazis occupied the city in 1944. Sent to a labor camp in a nearby village, he escaped, was recaptured and beaten. After he escaped a second time, he took refuge with his aunt in one of the safe houses maintained by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. With his blue eyes and blond hair, Lantos often served as a courier, delivering food to Jews in hiding and working for the anti-Nazi underground.

After the war he learned that his mother had died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and that other relatives had died as well. He located his childhood sweetheart, Annette Tilleman, a cousin of the glamorous Gabor sisters. He came to the United States in 1947, earning a degree in economics from the University of Washington and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. Tilleman arrived in 1948 to finish high school in Seattle. They were married in 1950.

Lantos, calling himself "an American by choice," took a quixotic path to Congress. Before his election, his resume was that of an academic who had taught economics at San Francisco State University, served as president of the Millbrae School District board, and been an occasional advisor to Congress on economic and foreign policy. But in 1978, Democrat Leo J. Ryan became the first and only congressman ever slain in the line of duty, killed in Guyana, where he went to investigate whether Americans were being held against their will by cult leader Jim Jones. Ryan was gunned down just before Jones engineered a mass suicide among his followers.

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