Accessibility links

Breaking News

Congressman Tom Lantos, Holocaust Survivor, Dead at 80


U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, a widely-respected foreign policy expert in Washington, has died of cancer at age 80. VOA's Deborah Tate looks back at the extraordinary life of the California Democrat.

Tom Lantos served nearly three decades in the U.S. House of Representatives, and most recently served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He made a name for himself as a champion of human rights.

"We are deeply concerned with human rights everywhere - in China, in North Korea and in many other countries," Lantos said. "And the United States is deeply committed to improving the human rights condition globally."

Thomas Peter Lantos was born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary in 1928.

He was 16 when Nazi Germany occupied Hungary. He joined the anti-Nazi resistance, and later the anti-Communist student movement. After the Soviets invaded Hungary, he learned that most of his family had died in the Holocaust.

Lantos came to the United States on an academic scholarship in 1947.

Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University says the war helped shape Lantos' outlook in Congress.

"Where he comes from is the experience of anti-totalitarianism," he said. "He hates dictators with a passion, and he hates people and politicians who discriminate against others on the basis of race, color, national origin or religion."

The human rights movement found an advocate in Lantos. He fought for legislation to crack down on countries with poor human rights records, including a bill banning the import of gems from Burma.

"This legislation is imperative because the ruling junta steps up its abuse of human rights," Congressman Lantos said. "All of us saw the bloodbath of monks and others on the streets of Burma. And the civilized world is getting sick and tired of the generals running a brutal police state in Asia at a time when so many countries in Asia are moving toward democracy."

Lantos staunchly supported President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, but he later became an outspoken critic of the conflict.

"We need to get out of Iraq for that country's sake and for our own," he said. "It is time to go and to go now."

Lantos was a prominent advocate for Israel. He attributed his support not to his Jewish heritage, but to his belief in democracy and opposition to terrorism.

"I am here to indicate that we are supportive of your effort to bring about what will be a safer, more secure and more prosperous Israel," he said.

Such a strong belief in democracy also prompted Lantos to support aid for post-communist Eastern Europe.

When he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus last December, he announced he would not seek reelection. In a written statement, he said 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 life as a member of Congress.

He is survived by his wife, Annette, two daughters, and 17 grandchildren.