Tom Lantos

(1928-2008)


LANTOS, TOM (1928–2008), Democratic congressman from California, the lone Holocaust survivor to serve in the US Congress. Lantos was born in Budapest, Hungary. "The bulk of the Jews of Budapest were utterly assimilated," Lantos said. "Many of them like my family were deeply patriotic and included military officers, university professors, writers and they were enormously proud of their Hungarian heritage." He was 16 years old when Nazi Germany occupied his native country in March 1944. As a teenager, he was placed in a Hungarian fascist forced labor camp. Tall, blond-haired, and blue-eyed he looked like the model Aryan, so he could survive provided that he was not betrayed or forced to lower his trousers. He succeeded in escaping and was able to survive in a safe house in Budapest set up by Swedish humanitarian Raoul *Wallenberg. His mother was not so fortunate. She was deported and never heard from again. He served as a messenger, passing between houses. His story is one of the five individual accounts which form the basis of Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning documentary about the Holocaust in Hungary, The Last Days.

His gratitude toward his savior Raoul Wallenberg led him to propose as his first bill in Congress that Raoul Wallenberg be given honorary American citizenship; only Winston Churchill had been so honored. He also pressured the Swedish government to actively open up the Wallenberg case again.

In 1947, Lantos was awarded an academic scholarship to study in the United States on the basis of an essay he wrote about U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In August of that year, he arrived in New York City after a week-long boat trip to America on a converted World War II troop ship. Onboard "there was a big basket of oranges and one of bananas," Lantos recalled. "I wanted to do the right thing so I asked this sailor "should I take an orange or a banana? And he said: 'Man, you eat all the goddamn oranges and all the goddamn bananas you want.' Then I knew I was in paradise."

His only possession was a precious Hungarian salami, which U.S. customs officials promptly confiscated when he arrived. Just a few weeks after he left Hungary, the Communist Party seized control of the country.

Lantos attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he received a B.A. and M.A. in Economics. He moved to San Francisco in 1950 and began graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he later received his Ph.D. in economics. In the fall of 1950 he started teaching economics at San Francisco State University.

For three decades (1950–80) Lantos was a professor of economics, an international affairs analyst for public television, and an economic consultant to businesses. He also served in senior advisory roles to members of the United States Senate including Senator Frank Church of Iowa, Mike Gravel of Alaska, and Joseph Biden of Delaware.

He was first elected to Congress in November 1980 – the only Democrat to defeat an un-indicted incumbent Republican in the year of the Reagan landslide. He won his seat by the lowest plurality of any member of Congress elected that year – 46% to his opponent's 43%. Through excellent constituent service, careful attention to his district's needs, and hard work in the Bay Area and in Washington, Lantos has been reelected repeatedly by large margins. He is the ranking Democrat on both the House International Relations Committee and the Government Reform Committee. He helped found the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

Lantos was a strong supporter of the Gulf War Resolution, a hawk on foreign policy, and a powerful voice for human rights.

He is married to his childhood sweetheart and fellow Holocaust survivor Annette Tillemann, who had been sheltered in the Portuguese embassy in Budapest. A Jew by birth, she is a Mormon by faith and raised her daughters that way. Tom Lantos is a strong voice in support of Jewish causes. He was deeply active in the campaign for Soviet Jewry and is an ardent though not uncritical supporter of Israel.

Reflecting on his journey, he said: "My life today is something I cannot believe possible. I think back sixty years ago when I was a hunted animal and now I am dealing with the 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."

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.