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Congressman Tom Lantos Dies at Age 80

In 9/11, China, Congress, Darfur, Democrats, Enviornment, Human Rights, Politics, War in Iraq on February 11, 2008 at 11:42 pm

Congressman Tom Lantos

Tom Lantos, who as a teenager twice escaped from a Nazi-run forced labor camp in Hungary and became the only Holocaust survivor to win a seat in Congress, died Monday. He was 80.

From The New York Times:

His death, at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., was announced by Lynne A. Weil, a spokeswoman for his office. Mr. Lantos said last month that he had cancer of the esophagus and would retire early next year, at the end of his 14th term.

Mr. Lantos, a Democrat, represented a district that includes southwest San Francisco as well as his hometown, San Mateo. He became chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee early last year after the Democrats had regained control of the House.

The congressman was known as a strong defender of human rights, an ardent supporter of Israel and an outspoken critic of Communism. He also worked for stronger protections for animals and the environment.

It was his defense of human rights, though, that most clearly defined a Congressional career that lasted nearly three decades. That focus was an outgrowth of his experience during the Holocaust, in which much of his family, including his mother, perished.

Mr. Lantos, a Hungarian-born Jew who was 16 when the Nazis occupied his native country, once said his entire life had served as preparation for the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Though he held the post for little more than a year, the committee took a number of bold steps in that time, demanding, for instance, that the government of Japan apologize for wartime sex slavery by its military and declaring Turkey’s mass killing of Armenians in World War I an act of genocide, a move that angered the Bush administration and nearly provoked a confrontation with the Turkish government.

He was frequently critical of China, citing its record on human rights, and was arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington in 2006 during a protest against the mass killings in Darfur.

Thomas Peter Lantos, born into a family of educators in Budapest, twice escaped from forced-labor camps after the Nazis occupied Hungary. His survival was due in part to the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews by issuing them Swedish-protected passports and declaring them Swedish subjects. “This was like me declaring you to be prima ballerina of the St. Petersburg Ballet; it had no validity,” Mr. Lantos was to say. And yet, he said, “these miraculous, worthless pieces of paper worked.”

One of Mr. Lantos’s first acts after being elected to Congress in 1980 was to introduce legislation naming Wallenberg an honorary United States citizen.

Mr. Lantos was one of five Hungarian Holocaust survivors featured in the film “The Last Days,” which won the 1998 Academy Award for best documentary feature.

After the war, Mr. Lantos managed to reunite with his childhood friend Annette Tillemann, who had escaped to Switzerland. They moved to the United States after he won a scholarship, and married in 1950. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at the University of Washington and then a doctorate in economics from the University of California.

He taught economics at San Francisco State University from 1950 to 1980 and also served as a television commentator on international affairs. He was a member of the Presidential Task Force on Defense and Foreign Policy in 1976 and was an aide to Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, in 1978-79.

Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Annette Dick of Denver and Katrina Swett of Bow, N.H.; 17 grandchildren; and 2 great-grandchildren. Ms. Swett’s husband, Richard Swett, is a former congressman from New Hampshire and onetime ambassador to Denmark.

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