Washington, Feb 11 (UNI) Veteran Congressman Tom Lantos, who was the only Holocaust survivor to be elected to the US House of Representatives, died today morning at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in suburban Maryland. He was 80.
His wife, Annette, two daughters, and many of his 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren were beside him when he breathed his last, according to his Spokeswoman Lynne Weil.
Lantos, a life-long Democrat, chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 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, who as a teenager escaped the Nazi labor camp twice in Hungary, was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. He said last month that he would complete his 14th term and would not seek re-election from his constituency in California.
White House press secretary Dana Perino announced the news of Lantos' death to reporters and immediately thereafter flags were lowered to half-mast at the White House and US Capitol.
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 labour 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 provided Lantos the opportunity to speak out on foreign policy issues, sometimes courting controversy.
Tall and dignified, Lantos never lost the accent of his native Hungary. "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 somehow managed to reunite after the war. They moved to the San Francisco Bay area so Lantos could pursue a doctorate in Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Before being elected to Congress Lantos taught Economics for three decades at the San Francisco State University.
Lantos and his wife had two daughters, Annette and Katrina, who between them produced 18 grandchildren, one of whom died young.
Lantos' daughters were following a promise to produce a very large family because his and his wife's families had perished in the Holocaust according to his website.
In a condolence message 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." US Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said "Our great sorrow is tempered by our admiration for Chairman Lantos and his extraordinary contributions to our beloved country.
An unfailingly gracious and courageous man, Tom was recognised by friends and colleagues alike as a leader who left an enviable legacy of service to his country.
'''We were fortunate indeed to have known him. Annette and the entire Lantos family have my heartfelt condolences.'' UNI XC AM RAI2352