BY Michael Berenbaum

Democratic congressman from California, the lone Holocaust survivor to serve in the US Congress, Tom Lantos was born in Budapest, Hungary.

“The bulk of the Jews of Budapest were utterly assimilated,” Lantos said. “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.”

He was 16 years old when Nazi Germany occupied his native country in March 1944. As a teenager, he was placed in a Hungarian fascist forced labor camp. Tall, blond-haired, and blue-eyed he looked like the model Aryan, so he could survive provided that he was not betrayed or forced to lower his trousers. He succeeded in escaping and was able to enter a safe house in Budapest set up by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

His mother was not so fortunate. She was deported and never heard from again. He served as a messenger, passing between houses. His story is one of the five individual accounts which form the basis of James Moll’s Spielberg’s Academy Award winning documentary about the Holocaust in Hungary, The Last Days.

His gratitude toward his savior Raoul Wallenberg led him to propose as his first bill in Congress that Raoul Wallenberg be given honorary American citizenship; only Winston Churchill had been so honored. It took extraordinary persuasiveness and perseverance to elevate Wallenberg to such a level. He also had the street on which the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was build, 15th Street between Indepedence Avenue and the Washington Basin declared Raoul Wallenberg Place. Thus, anyone writing the Museum or contacting the Museum touches the memory of this very great diplomat. He also pressured the Swedish government to actively open up the Wallenberg case again. I worked with on this issue. While there was hope that Wallenberg was alive – the Swedish diplomat born in 1912 would now be 96, an unlikely age to survive 62 years of Gulag life — no lead of too remote, no meeting was too insignificant to warrant Tom and Annette’s time.

In 1947, Lantos was awarded an academic scholarship to study in the United States on the basis of an essay he wrote about U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In August of that year, he arrived in New York City after a week-long boat trip to America 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.”

His only possession was a precious Hungarian salami, which U.S. customs officials promptly confiscated when he arrived. Just a few weeks after he left Hungary, the Communist Party seized control of the country.

Lantos attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he received a B.A. and M.A. in Economics. He moved to San Francisco in 1950 and began graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he later received his Ph.D. in economics. In the fall of 1950 he started teaching economics at San Francisco State University.

For three decades (1950–80) Lantos was a professor of economics, an international affairs analyst for public television, and an economic consultant to businesses. He also served in senior advisory roles to members of the United States Senate including Senator Frank Church of Iowa, Mike Gravel of Alaska, and Joseph Biden of Delaware.

He was first elected to Congress in November 1980 – the only Democrat to defeat an un-indicted incumbent Republican in the year of the Reagan landslide. He won his seat by the lowest plurality of any member of Congress elected that year – 46% to his opponent’s 43%. Through excellent constituent service, careful attention to his district’s needs and hard work in the Bay Area and in Washington, Lantos has been reelected repeatedly by large margins. He finally achieved his dream and became chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Having made human rights the center of his public service, he helped found the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and worked tirelessly on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

Lantos was a strong supporter of the Gulf War Resolution, a hawk on foreign policy, and a powerful voice for human rights. He was active in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and served on its governing Council. He was proud of the role of its Committee on Conscience that brought remembrance of the past to bear on contemporary instances of genocide and mass murder.

He was married to his childhood sweetheart and fellow Holocaust survivor Annette Tillemann, who had been sheltered in the Portuguese embassy in Budapest. A Jew by birth, she is a Mormon by faith and raised her daughters that way. She was his full partner, working side by side with her husband on Human Rights causes and especially on Jewish causes. Oftentimes, the easiest way to get to him was to speak with her.

Lantos embraced his responsibilities as a Holocaust survivor supporting Jewish causes, Israel –- powerfully but not uncritically — and Soviet Jewry among them, and also supporting universal causes of combating genocide and mass murder, advocating tirelessly for human rights and human dignity. Charismatic, elegant and eloquent, he possessed a gravitas that is rare in the House of Representatives and conducted himself as a Senator and Statesman. He was a masterful speaker who could move audience with his rhetoric but elevated them to his level of serious discourse. He exemplified Jewish social values and Jewish political values. Unceasingly decent, he would act quietly on behalf of constituents, colleagues and friends. I have seen him mentor young staff and truly shape their lives.

Many Jews are going to be uncomfortable with the description of Tom Lantos in such laudatory terms as an exemplar of Jewish values. After all, his wife converted to Mormonism and his children were raised as Mormons. In his official biography Congressman Lantos listed his religion as Jewish and in his public life wore the mantel with pride and with great dignity. No matter what his personal observance, his was out front as a Jew and conducted himself impeccably as a Jewish American and as an American Congressman.

Sociologists of modernity have pointed at that boundary lines which were once rigid and difficult to cross are now porous and so very difficult to describe. Thus, in American political life there has been a debate over how “Black” Barack Omama is, while there could be no such debate over Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton.

In his public life, there can be no debate over how “Jewish” Tom Lantos was. In France, Cardinal Lustiger, the Yiddish-speaking, Jewish-born Archbishop of Paris breached the boundary lines and spoke comfortably of himself as both Jewish and Catholic, much to the chagrin and almost as often to the confusion of French Jews and Roman Catholics alike.

Tom Lantos embraced his public role as a Jew and most especially as a Holocaust survivor. It brought added gravitas to a very serious man and added attention to his role as a champion of human rights, the founder of the Human Rights Caucus.
He had an immigrants’ love of America; those who have experienced tyranny cherish American freedom in ways that we who have been free from birth can seldom appreciate.

Reflecting on his journey, he said: “My life today is something I cannot believe possible. I think back sixty years ago when I was a hunted animal and now I am dealing with the issues of state of a country I love so deeply. It all seems like a dream and it all places an incredible sense of responsibility on me. I didn’t achieve this because of what I am, it happened because of what this country is.”