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Member of Congress had survived Nazi labor camp

Times Staff Writer

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, died Monday of complications from cancer of the esophagus at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, his staff said. He was 80.

A champion of civil liberties, Lantos founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and supported human rights struggles against both right-wing and left-wing regimes in China, Russia, Myanmar, Darfur and wherever official pressure could, as he put it, “prevent another Holocaust.” He also was passionate about animal rights, working to stop seal hunts, dog killings in foreign countries, and horse slaughter, bear baiting and the operation of puppy mills at home.

He also used his post as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to highlight human rights violators. He argued that nations with bad records had no place on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, that Beijing should not be awarded the 2008 Olympics because of its human rights record, and that corporations had an obligation to protect individuals and press freedoms. When executives of Yahoo Inc. appeared before the committee last year to defend their role in the jailing of a journalist by Chinese officials, Lantos said, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are Pygmies.”

Vigilant against appeasement in foreign policy -- whether the culprit was Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Saddam Hussein -- Lantos was a supporter of the Iraq war even though his 12th Congressional District, stretching from southwest San Francisco down the peninsula to take in much of San Mateo County, was overwhelmingly opposed. Although he led the debate for authorization of the campaign to oust Hussein in 2002, he later became disillusioned with faulty prewar intelligence and called for an independent investigation into what went wrong.

“The American people have not sent us here just to be an amen cho- rus for this administration,” he said when he finally rose to criticize the war. “There are serious problems and we should be debating serious solutions.”

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Last year he opposed the surge of extra troops in Iraq, telling Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was lobbying Congress for support: “Our efforts in Iraq are a mess, and throwing in more troops will not improve it.”

Lantos, a staunch supporter of Israel, led a U.S. walkout from a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 over its anti-Semitic language. But he also was an advocate of talking to renegade regimes. He was among the first members of Congress to visit Libya in 2004, lauding Moammar Kadafi’s renunciation of weapons of mass destruction. And when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) met with Syrian President Bashar Assad last year, Lantos was at her side. “Dialogue,” he said, “is not appeasement.”

Pelosi, calling his death “a profound loss for the Congress and for the nation and a terrible loss for me personally,” said in a statement Monday that Lantos had used his chairmanship “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.”

Born Feb. 1, 1928, to a middle-class family in Budapest, Hungary, Lantos was 16 when Nazis occupied the city in 1944. Sent to a labor camp in a nearby village, he escaped, was recaptured and beaten. After he escaped a second time, he took refuge with his aunt in one of the safe houses maintained by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. With his blue eyes and blond hair, Lantos often served as a courier, delivering food to Jews in hiding and working for the anti-Nazi underground.

After the war he learned that his mother had died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and that other relatives had died as well. He located his childhood sweetheart, Annette Tilleman, a cousin of the glamorous Gabor sisters. He came to the United States in 1947, earning a degree in economics from the University of Washington and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. Tilleman arrived in 1948 to finish high school in Seattle. They were married in 1950.

Lantos, calling himself “an American by choice,” took a quixotic path to Congress. Before his election, his resume was that of an academic who had taught economics at San Francisco State University, served as president of the Millbrae School District board, and been an occasional advisor to Congress on economic and foreign policy. But in 1978, Democrat Leo J. Ryan became the first and only congressman ever slain in the line of duty, killed in Guyana, where he went to investigate whether Americans were being held against their will by cult leader Jim Jones. Ryan was gunned down just before Jones engineered a mass suicide among his followers.

Republican Bill Royer won a special election to serve out Ryan’s term. But in 1980, Lantos surprised Royer with an upset victory to take the seat. Despite an attempted return by Royer and later efforts to oust Lantos for his hawkish foreign policy views, he had won reelection with comfortable margins of more than 65% ever since.

His first major bill in Congress was to give honorary American citizenship to Wallenberg, whom Lantos called “the central figure in my life.”

Lantos, an avid swimmer who never smoked, announced last month that he had been diagnosed with cancer and would retire at year’s end.

“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,” he said. “I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”

With his mane of white hair and his Hungarian-accented English, Lantos cut a dashing figure on Capitol Hill. But he could also be a sarcastic, partisan inquisitor. When Samuel Pierce Jr., the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said he needed more time to prepare for hearings because he was having trouble finding an attorney, Lantos said, “I can understand not being able to find affordable housing in Washington but not an attorney.”

Lantos did not attend the United Nations’ annual commemoration of the Holocaust last month. His remarks were delivered by his daughter, Katrina Lantos Swett.

In his speech, Lantos called on the world community, “on this day dedicated to one of the worst episodes in human history,” to “re-dedicate ourselves to stopping current tragedies such as the genocide in Darfur -- and there is no other proper word for this atrocity -- and to preventing such inhuman cruelty in the future.” Saying that “the veneer of civilization is paper thin,” Lantos added, “we are its guardians, and we can never rest.”

He is survived by his wife, Annette, their children, Katrina Lantos Swett of New Hampshire and Annette Lantos Dick of Colorado, as well as 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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johanna.neuman@latimes.com


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