Bay Area Rep. Tom Lantos, who was the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in Congress, died early this morning at age 80. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was battling cancer and announced last month that he would not run for reelection.
Lantos, who referred to himself as “an American by choice,” was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary, and was 16 when Adolf Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. He survived by escaping from the labor camp and coming under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status and visa-issuing powers to save thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Lantos’ mother and much of his family perished in the Holocaust.
That background gave Lantos a moral authority unique in Congress and he used it repeatedly to speak out on foreign policy issues, sometimes courting controversy. He was a strong supporter of Israel and a lead advocate for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war, though he would come to be a strong critic of the Bush administration’s strategy there. In 2006 Lantos was one of five members of Congress arrested in a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy over the genocide in Darfur. ...
Tall and dignified, Lantos never lost the accent of his native Hungary, but his courtly demeanor belied the cutting comments he would make in committee if the testimony he heard was not to his liking.
“Morally, you are pygmies,” he berated top executives of Yahoo Inc. at a hearing he called in November 2007 as they defended their company’s involvement in the jailing of a Chinese journalist.
Lantos showed his moral authority when in 2005 he identified the giant elephant that is the American refusal to recognize as genocide the 1915 atrocities committed against Armenians by the crumbling Ottoman Empire.