WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rep. Tom Lantos, the only survivor of the Holocaust elected to the U.S. Congress and who became an expert in foreign affairs and champion of human rights, died on Monday after recently being diagnosed with cancer.
Lantos, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, died at Bethesda Naval Medical Center of complications from cancer of the esophagus, a spokeswoman said.
The 80-year-old Democrat, who represented his northern California district since 1981, had announced on January 2 that he would retire from Congress at the end of this year because of ill health. He was diagnosed with cancer in late December.
Lantos was born in Hungary and as a teenager twice escaped Nazi labor camps. He was active in the anti-Nazi underground before coming to the United States in 1947 on an academic scholarship.
When he announced his retirement from Congress, Lantos expressed his gratitude toward his adopted country, saying, “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.”
During the war, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg protected Lantos and other occupants of a Budapest “safehouse” apartment building from arrest by Nazi soldiers.
Four decades later, Lantos, by then a member of the U.S. Congress, successfully pushed legislation granting honorary U.S. citizenship to Wallenberg.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Lantos 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 the benefits of freedom and prosperity for others.”
Lantos sided with the Bush administration in its push in 2002 for congressional authorization for an invasion of Iraq. But as the combat wore on, he became a critic.
Lantos, a former San Francisco State University economics professor and local television commentator, spent his congressional career serving on the House’s foreign affairs panel, rising to chairman a year ago.
He was an outspoken critic of human rights violations internationally and was a founding co-chairman of the 24-year-old Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
David Bryden, a spokesman for the Global AIDS Alliance, said Lantos was “crucial to ensuring that the Congress authorized the spending needed to succeed on AIDS, including to help orphaned and vulnerable children.”
Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel, speaking on CNN, said of Lantos: “He was one of those spokesman in Congress whose voices are needed ... whenever he spoke it was always for the victims; victims of injustice, of forgetting, victims of diseases, victims of dictatorships and totalitarianism.”
Lantos’ death will not change the balance of power in the House now controlled by Democrats, 231 to 198 with six vacancies. A special election will be held to replace Lantos.
His wife, Annette, also a Holocaust survivor and a cousin of actresses Zsa Zsa Gabor and Eva Gabor, said in a statement that Lantos’ life was “defined by courage, optimism, and unwavering dedication to his principles and to his family.”
Gabor Kardos, communications director for the Hungarian Holocaust Centre in Budapest said: “This is a tremendous loss for us. It is very noble what he did for the survivors ... and to foster the memory of (Raoul) Wallenberg.”
Editing by Philip Barbara