Video: Rep. Tom Lantos dies

updated 2/11/2008 3:23:00 PM ET 2008-02-11T20:23:00

Rep. Tom Lantos, who as a teenager twice escaped from a Nazi-run forced labor camp in Hungary and became the only Holocaust survivor to win a seat in Congress, has died. He was 80.

Spokeswoman Lynne Weil said Lantos, a Californian, died early Monday at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in suburban Maryland. He was surrounded by his wife, Annette, two daughters, and many of his 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Annette Lantos said in a statement that her husband's life was "defined by courage, optimism, and unwavering dedication to his principles and to his family."

Lantos, a Democrat who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disclosed last month that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He said at the time that he would serve out his 14th term but would not seek re-election in his Northern California district, which takes in the southwest portion of San Francisco and suburbs to the south including Lantos' home of San Mateo.

White House press secretary Dana Perino announced the news of Lantos' death to reporters at a morning briefing and flags were lowered to half-mast at the White House and U.S. Capitol.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "Tom Lantos was a true American hero. He was the embodiment of what it meant to have one's freedom denied and then to find it and to insist that America stand for spreading freedom and prosperity to others."

Speaking to reporters at the State Department, she said, "He was also a dear, dear friend and I am personally quite devastated by his loss."

An American by choice
The timing of Lantos' diagnosis was a particular blow because he had assumed his committee chairmanship just a year earlier, when Democrats retook control of Congress. He said then that in a sense his whole life had been a preparation for the job - and it was.

Video: Rep. Lantos, Holocaust survivor, dies 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.

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He joined the Bush administration in strong support of Israel and was a lead advocate for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq invasion, though he would become a strong critic of President Bush's handling of the war.

A 'particular voice'
"Tom Lantos was a leader and a friend to all those around the world who fought for democracy and human rights," said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. "His hand guided every landmark in our recent history, from the fight against Nazi tyranny during the Holocaust to the championing of Soviet Jewry. His voice was never silent until today."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Lantos offered "a particular voice that understood what had happened in this world back in the 30s and 40s."

"We should make sure we learn from that and teach our children so it never happens again, and where it is happening around the world do something to stop it," Bloomberg said. "It's our obligation, I've always thought, and Tom really, I think, did understand that."

Lantos was a frequent visitor to Hungary, meeting with political leaders and holding recurrent news conferences which were widely covered in the Hungarian press. He was widely recognized there for his calls for the respect of the human rights of the millions of ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, especially Romania and Slovakia, whose cultural identity was a common target of those countries' communist regimes.

"Although we had differing views in various political issues, we clearly understand that we have lost a true friend of Hungary," Fidesz, the main center-right opposition party, said in a statement. "Tom Lantos contributed greatly to the understanding and support in the United States for the Hungarians living beyond our borders and their ongoing struggle to maintain their identity."

The governing Socialist Party also paid tribute to Lantos.

"With his life, Tom Lantos proved that democracy, freedom and humanity are able to defeat dictatorship and inhumanity," the Socialists said in a statement.

Lantos, who was elected to the House in 1980, founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983. In early 2004 he led the first congressional delegation to Libya in more than 30 years, meeting personally with Moammar Gadhafi and urging the Bush administration to show "good faith" to the North African leader in his pledge to abandon his nuclear weapons programs. Later that year, President Bush lifted sanctions against Libya.

Tall, dignified and outspoken
In October 2007, as Foreign Affairs chairman, Lantos defied administration opposition by moving through his committee a measure that would have recognized the World War I-era killings of Armenians as a genocide, something strongly opposed by Turkey. The bill has not passed the House.

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.

"This is about as believable as Elvis being seen in a K-Mart," was his retort to a witness testifying before a subcommittee he headed in 1989 that led a congressional investigation of Reagan-era scandals at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Only in the United States
Lantos was elected to Congress after spending three decades teaching economics at San Francisco State University, working as a business consultant and serving as a foreign policy commentator on television. He challenged GOP incumbent Rep. Bill Royer in 1980 after other Democrats passed up the chance to run, and won narrowly, with 46 percent of the vote. He subsequently won re-election by comfortable margins.

"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," Lantos said upon announcing his retirement last month. "I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country."

Lantos came to the United States in 1947 after being awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1950 he married Annette, his childhood sweetheart, with whom he'd managed to reunite after the war. The couple moved to the San Francisco Bay area so Lantos could pursue a doctorate in economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The first major bill Lantos passed in Congress was to give honorary American citizenship to Wallenberg, whom he called "the central figure in my life." But Lantos sometimes shied away from talking about his experiences in the war. When he joined a lawsuit in 1984 to seek Wallenberg's release from the Soviet Union - Wallenberg was captured and imprisoned by Soviet troops after World War II - Lantos told The Associated Press that he "didn't want to dwell on the details" of the dangers he faced from the Nazis.

Lantos joined the Hungarian Underground after the Nazi occupation but was captured and sent to a forced labor camp 40 miles north of Budapest, according to the biography on his congressional Web site. He was beaten severely when he tried to escape, but feeling he had nothing to lose he made another attempt. This time he made it back to Budapest and to one of the safehouses that Wallenberg had established.

Lantos credited Wallenberg's protection, his own Aryan appearance - blond hair, blue eyes - and a good measure of luck with helping him survive the war. But he said that at the time he didn't think he had much of a chance of staying alive.

"I was sixteen, but I was very old," he said in an interview for "The Last Days," the 1999 book accompanying the Steven Spielberg documentary of the same name that focused on the experience of Hungarian-American survivors.

"The bloodbath, the cruelty, the death that I saw, so many times around me during those few months between March of 1944 and January of 1945 made me a very old young man."

"My life today, given my background, is something I cannot believe possible," he went on to say.

Lantos and his wife had two daughters, Annette and Katrina, who between them produced 18 grandchildren. According to Lantos, his daughters were following through on a promise to produce a very large family because his and his wife's families had perished in the Holocaust.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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