This Day in Jewish History

1928: The Only Holocaust Survivor to Serve in Congress Is Born

Budapest-born Tom Lantos reached the U.S. by winning an essay contest and went on to serve in the California delegation to the House for 28 years,

U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, listens to a testimony during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 6, 2007.
Reuters

February 11, 1928, is the birthdate of Tom Lantos, the Hungarian native who was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in either house of the U.S. Congress. Lantos was part of the California delegation to the House of Representatives from 1980 until his death, in 2008.

Lantos Tomas Peter, as he was called in Hungarian, was born and raised in Budapest. His father, Paul, was a banker, and his mother, Anne, a teacher, and the extended family had many intellectuals and academics. Tom himself learned to play bridge and chess at a very young age. He attended the Berzsenyi Daniel Gymasium, and celebrated his bar mitzvah at the city’s Great Synagogue, though generally the family was secular in its Jewish practices.

It was only in March 1944 that the Germans occupied Hungary, and a 16-year-old Lantos was drafted into a forced-labor battalion that was in Szob, north of the capital. He escaped from the camp, was caught, beaten and sent back, and escaped again. The second time, Tom made his way back to Budapest, where he and an aunt were given refuge in one of the “safe houses” set up by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Courier for the underground

With his light hair and blue eyes, Lantos dressed in the uniform of a military cadet and worked as a courier for the underground, delivering medicine and food to the apartments rented by Wallenberg to hide Jews. (Many years later, Lantos’ first act as a U.S. representative was to sponsor a bill bestowing honorary U.S. citizenship on Wallenberg, who disappeared after the war and whose precise fate has never been ascertained.)

At the war’s end, Lantos learned that he was the only survivor from his entire extended family.

He began studying at the University of Budapest, and, having learned excellent English, he participated in an essay contest sponsored by the American Jewish student organization Hillel. His essay, about the late U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, won first prize, which was a scholarship to study in the United States.

Lantos arrived in the U.S. aboard a converted troop ship in August 1946, and picked up his studies at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he earned his B.A. and M.A. in economics. That was followed by a doctorate in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1953.

In the years that followed, Lantos taught at San Francisco State University, and at various times, worked as a business consultant, media commentator, and as an advisor to politicians in Washington. In 1978-79, for example, he was an assistant to then-Senator Joseph R. Biden, today the U.S. vice-president.

Hawkish on Israel

Lantos, a Democrat, was first elected to Congress himself in 1980, beating the incumbent Bill Royer, who had been elected in a special election a year earlier to take the place of Leo Ryan, who had been murdered when he traveled to Guyana to help constituents of his 11th district who had followed the cult leader Jim Jones to that South American country.

In 1950, Lantos married Annette Tillemann, who had been a childhood friend in Budapest, survived the war in Switzerland (also thanks to Wallenberg), before returning to Budapest. After the war, she had accepted Jesus into her life, and in 1959 she became a Mormon. Tom maintained his identity as a secular Jew, with strong connections to Israel, but their three children were raised as Mormons, a situation that raised eyebrows in many Jewish organizations.

As a congressman, Lantos, who represented southwest San Francisco and San Mateo County, to the south, consistently supported the liberal social agenda, while remaining hawkish on Israel and foreign affairs in general. (He was a strong supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, though he turned against the war in 2006.) He was also among the founders of the Congressional Humans Rights Caucus.

In 2007, Lantos became chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, a position he said he felt like he’d spent his entire life preparing for. Sadly, later that year, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and in January 2008, he announced he would retire at the end of that term. On February 11, he died, shortly after his 80th birthday.