Congressman Tom Lantos, Holocaust Survivor, Dead at 80

Congressman Tom Lantos, a Democrat from the Bay area, died today at a Maryland hospital. He was 80 years old. Lantos was the only member of Congress who was also a Holocaust survivor. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde tells the story of a man who made the battle for human rights the fight of his lifetime.

Kitty Felde: Tom Lantos was a teenager in Hungary when the Nazis invaded in 1944. He was sent to a forced labor camp, tasked with rebuilding a railroad bridge the Allies kept blowing up. Most of his fellow workers died. His mother and most of the rest of his family were sent to a concentration camp. They didn't survive.

In a recent interview with Dick Cavett, Lantos recalled the day he arrived in New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

Congressman Tom Lantos (in interview): To me, that's a physical move from a totalitarian society to a free society, and I've had the joy of living it every single day since that summer day in 1947.

Felde: Lantos personified the immigrant success story. He earned his PhD in economics at UC Berkeley and taught at San Francisco State. In 1980, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. Three years later, he founded the Human Rights Caucus.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein worked with him. On the Senate floor Monday, she recalled the day the caucus members asked officials from Yahoo to explain why they'd shared with Chinese authorities information that landed a journalist in jail for sharing "state secrets."

Senator Dianne Feinstein: I thought back about when Yahoo had the confrontation with China and didn't stand up but gave in to China, and Tom stood on his feet with his blazing blue eyes and his grey hair and said, "They're moral pygmies." He called it as it was. He stood for human rights.

Felde: Two years ago, Lantos was arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington where he was protesting the genocide in Darfur. After almost three decades on Capitol Hill, last year Lantos became Chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Democrat Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks, a fellow member of that committee, recalled the kind of man Tom Lantos was.

Congressman Brad Sherman: He was a European gentleman. He had a charm that we can only admire. At the same time, he was absolutely determined to push our foreign policy in the right direction.

Felde: Last fall, as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Lantos waged a tough political battle. The issue was a House Resolution calling on the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide. Raffi Hamparian, Western Chairman of the Armenian National Committee, says the White House pressured Lantos to bury the resolution.

Raffi Hamparian: People for many years have said, "It's not a good time to consider this legislation regarding the Armenian genocide, because we don't want to see it as an affront to the Republic of Turkey." I think what Chairman Lantos said on October 10th was, "It's never the right time to deny a genocide. That issue of timing is the very reason the legislation should be adopted. That you don't want to send a message to genocide perpetrators that we're going to recognize this or that genocide when based on when it's convenient to the United States of America."

Felde: The resolution passed the Foreign Affairs Committee. But intense lobbying caused its co-authors to pull the measure before the full House could cast a vote. Lantos stepped down from his chairmanship less than a month ago. He died early Monday of cancer of the esophagus at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. Congressman Tom Lantos summed up his own life this way:

Lantos: Once you learn that there is so much to do, which in a modest little way can leave this planet slightly better, less evil, less selfish, less monstrous – then you gain enormous energy to keep moving on.

Felde: In addition to his wife of more than half a century, Lantos leaves behind two daughters and more than a dozen grandchildren.

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