Tom Lantos

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Word comes this morning of the death of a congressman who never tired of the fight for human rights around the globe–a struggle that was rooted in his own remarkable life story.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, 80, was the only holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress. As a teenager, Lantos fought in the anti-Nazi resistance in Hungary, and was sent to a labor camp. He escaped, was recaptured and beaten, and escaped again. Lantos found refuge with an aunt in one of the famous safe houses that were maintained by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Because his blond hair and blue eyes made him look “Aryan,” he was able to move around Budapest in a military cadet’s uniform, delivering food and medicine to others who were hiding in safe houses. It was only after the war that he discovered that the rest of his family had perished. In 1999, he wrote:

My life today, given my background, is something I cannot believe possible. I am privileged to serve the Congress of the United States. I think back to my life fifty years ago, when I was a hunted animal in the jungle, and how I am dealing with 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. My wife Annette and I have known each other all of our lives. We grew up together as children in Budapest, and we have been married now for forty-nine years. And if the next forty-nine years are half as good as the first forty-nine, I’ll be a very lucky man. We have two daughters who very early on came to us and said they planned a special gift for us. As our families had been wiped out in the Holocaust, they would give us a large family. And we have been blessed with seventeen wonderful grandchildren.

Lantos founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, sponsored the first U.S. aid to the newly freed countries of Eastern Europe, spoke out on human rights violations in China, worked for funding to fight AIDS around the world. He was a driving force behind $300 million in humantarian relief for Darfur, accusing the international community of failing to intervene there because of “the same double standard that stayed our hand in Rwanda in the 1990s.”

Only a year after assuming the committee chairmanship that was the crowning achievement of his congressional career, Lantos last month announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He said that he would serve out the rest of his 14th term, but not seek re-election. Even that announcement was made more in gratitude than sadness:

“It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress.”

UPDATE: Speaker and fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi has issued this statement:

“As the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, Tom Lantos devoted his life to shining a bright light on dark corners of oppression. He used his chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee 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, Holocaust education, and a commitment to the state of Israel.”