Congressman Tom Lantos: A Farewell

I would bet that not many Americans, not to mention Jewish Americans, know that there was a member of the United States Congress who was a Holocaust survivor. He was the only one to hold that dubious, yet honorable distinction. I only learned of this fact in May of 2003, when I attended the annual Conference in Washington, DC of the American Jewish Committee. I attended an evening ceremony honoring Mr. Lantos with AJC’s Congressional Leadership Award. He spoke only briefly, but hearing his European accent made me tearfully aware that I was seeing a man who despite having suffered so much loss during the Holocaust, managed to get to the United States in 1947, as a result of an essay he wrote about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which won him an academic scholarship to study in the United States. Thirty-three years later he was elected to Congress, the only Democrat to defeat an un-indicted incumbent Republican in the year of the Reagan landslide. He held his Congressional seat in the Office of the Twelfth Congressional District of California for the next twenty-seven years, until February 11, 2008, when, at the age of 80, he died of esophageal cancer.

I learned that Mr. Lantos was a champion of human rights from his involvement with the Dalai Lama, to getting willingly arrested for protesting outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington to denounce that government's role in the killings in Darfur, to his pivotal role in the House's passage of a resolution pressing the Japanese government to officially apologize for the thousands of women used as sex slaves during World War II, to advocating for Taiwan in its tensions with China.

During the Nazi occupation of his homeland in Hungary, Lantos was sent to a forced labor camp, from which he escaped and ultimately ended up in one of the Budapest apartments rented by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. His story is one of the individual accounts which forms the basis of Steven Spielberg's Academy Award winning documentary about the Holocaust in Hungary, The Last Days.

Tom Lantos' biography is fascinating. He was married for over fifty-seven years to his childhood sweetheart, Annette Tillemann. They had two daughters. Annette (the daughter, not to be confused with her mother) had ten children and Katrina, had seven, giving Tom and Annette seventeen grandchildren. Also, interestingly, his daughter Katrina was the wife of Richard N. Swett, former New Hampshire Congressman (1991-1995) and former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark (1998-2001). Katrina ran for a U.S. House seat in New Hampshire in 2002, but she lost to incumbent Charles Bass (R), who had defeated her husband in 1994.

I was saddened when I heard of Lantos' death on Monday night, but extremely gratified to know that my life's experiences briefly intersected with his on that May evening in 2003. I am grateful because not only had I not previously heard of Tom Lantos, but I don't remember being aware of the organization, the American Jewish Committee (I would have thought that it was the same as the American Jewish Congress, which it is not). So it was another case of synchronicity (something I believe in whole-heartedly) that brought me to the AJC conference, at which, in their wisdom, they chose to honor this very important and memorable man.