Rep. Tom Lantos, who escaped the Nazis and grew up to become a forceful voice for human rights all over the world, died Monday (Feb. 11, 2008). He was 80.
The California Democrat, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, had cancer of the esophagus and died at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, said his spokeswoman, Lynne Weil.
At his side were his wife of nearly six decades, Annette, his two daughters and many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His life was "defined by courage, optimism, and unwavering dedication to his principles and to his family," Annette Lantos said in a statement.
Rep. Lantos, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was serving his 14th term in Congress. He had said he would not seek re-election in his Northern California district.
President Bush called him a man of character who was "a living reminder that we must never turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent at the hands of evil men."
Rep. Lantos assumed his committee chairmanship when Democrats retook control of Congress. He said at the time that in a sense his whole life had been a preparation for the job.
Mr. Lantos, who called himself "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 twice from a forced labor camp and coming under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Rep. Lantos' mother and much of his family perished in the Holocaust.
That background gave him a unique moral authority that he used to speak out on foreign policy issues, sometimes courting controversy. He advocated for human rights in Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere, and in 2006 was one of five members of Congress arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy protesting what the Bush administration describes as genocide in Darfur.
In October, Rep. 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.
Flags at the White House and Capitol were lowered to half-staff in his honor. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delivered remembrances on the Senate floor. Tributes poured in from Jewish groups worldwide, as well as from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the prime minister of Hungary.
Rep. Lantos "saw his survival from the camps in Europe as a reason to devote his life to help victims of discrimination, oppression and persecution everywhere," said Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, a close friend.