February 11, 2008

Tom Lantos Dies: Leading Congressional Advocate for Human Rights and Holocaust Survivor

Tom Lantos, fighting to the endIf you know anything about California politics, you probably know something about Tom Lantos. Lantos was the only survivor of the Holocaust of World War II to serve in Congress, and that experience earlier in his life shaped his political career for the rest of it. Lantos was a champion of human rights and human dignity who spent his last years standing up for those values during an administration that spent a good deal of its time redefining torture to suit its purposes and attempting to find ways to thumb its nose at the spirit of the Geneva Convention.

At exactly the point in history when America could use a hundred more men like Tom Lantos, we've lost the only one we had. The 14-term Representative from the San Francisco Bay Area succumbed today to esophageal cancer at age 80.

Longtime Rep. Tom Lantos dies of cancer

(02-11) 10:45 PST WASHINGTON - Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress and for 27 years a champion of human rights as representative for a district stretching from San Francisco's west side to San Carlos, died today of complications from esophageal cancer, his office said. He was 80.

The San Mateo Democrat was diagnosed with cancer in December but waited a month before revealing he was ill. He died this morning at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, a spokeswoman said.

Before he was diagnosed, Lantos was making plans to run in November for his 15th House term. Just last year, he joked he was "in the mid-point of his career," and until recently swam at 5:30 a.m. every day in the House pool...

Lantos put human rights at the top of his agenda throughout his congressional career, and many of the tributes pouring in today cited that commitment...

President Bush called Lantos "a man of character" who was "a living reminder that we must never turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent at the hands of evil men."

Lantos lost nearly his whole family in the Holocaust. When he was named chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year, he told The Chronicle that "in a sense, my whole life has been a preparation for this job."

Lantos was born in Budapest in 1928 and was 16 when the Nazis took the city in March 1944. Most Jews outside the Hungarian capital were sent to Auschwitz, while young Jewish men from Budapest were taken to forced labor camps.

Lantos was taken to a camp at Szob, a village about 40 miles from the capital, from which he escaped twice. The second time he made it to a safe house in Budapest, where his aunt had also taken refuge.

The Red Army liberated Budapest in January 1945, and Lantos began to search for his family. Most had died, but he managed to contact Annette Tillemann, a childhood friend who had gone into hiding shortly after the German occupation and escaped to Switzerland with her mother. Like Lantos, most of her relatives perished in the death camps.

The two were reunited in Hungary later that winter and married in 1950...

He was criticized in some quarters, however, for an unwavering support of Israel, and he wasn't afraid to be unpopular on a number of issues. As recently as October, he angered the Bush administration and some colleagues when he moved a bill through his committee that defined the killings of Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century as genocide.

He also made headlines last year when he berated Yahoo Inc. executives during a congressional hearing over their involvement in the jailing of a Chinese journalist. Lantos told the executives, "Morally, you are pygmies..."

Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama praised Lantos as a man who "never wavered in his defense of freedom and opposition to tyranny," noting that Lantos referred to himself as "an American by choice."

Rep. Mike Pence, a socially conservative Indiana Republican, called Lantos "a giant in Congress ... who stood on the world stage with moral clarity and courage..."

"Chairman Lantos was an indispensable leader in the field of global AIDS and poverty," added Global AIDS Alliance executive director Paul Zeitz. "The fight against HIV/AIDS has lost a real hero. His leadership will be sorely missed..."

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