Congressman, Holocaust Survivor Remembered

I first met Congressman Tom Lantos shortly after I became the political reporter at KGO-TV in San Francisco in the early '90s. I had scheduled an interview with him in his district's San Mateo office. When I arrived, he was dressed impeccably, even on his day off, in a pressed suit and tie.

He offered me a cup of tea and, before the interview began, took out his latest photographs to share of his beautiful family; his two daughters, who between them gave him 18 grandchildren. I remember that photograph of them taken on a grassy hill, all of them dressed in red and green plaid. They looked like the perfect family.

But behind the perfect picture was a harrowing story of the patriarch, who honestly believed he would never live past his 16th birthday.

It was 1944 — the final year of Adolph Hitler's escalation against the Jews in Lantos' homeland, Hungary. As a teenager he was forced into a concentration camp. And while there were no gas chambers, he told me in a subsequent interview, the threat of death always hung over the prisoners.

"I never expected to survive this period," he said. "There was no doubt in my mind that it was just a matter of time before I will be done away with." He then grinned and with a twinkle in his eye added, "It's been a pleasant surprise."

That was the way Congressman Lantos was. He would refer to such evil in the world in one breath, and in the next, manage to see the beauty.

He somehow escaped the Nazi camp and came under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews. Lantos reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Annette, and began raising their family.

Their two daughters told them they wanted to have so many children as a gift to their parents because both of them had lost most of their families during the Holocaust.

Lantos was elected to the California district's congressional seat in 1980, the only member to serve there who had survived the Holocaust. And while he didn't like to dwell on that time in his life, it was clear it shaped him and his desire to fight for human rights around the world.

Just last year the Democrat assumed the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and pushed to shine the light on oppression worldwide. He was arrested at a rally outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington in April 2006 while protesting the genocide in Darfur.

He was a staunch supporter of Israel. He created controversy within his own party when he supported the war resolution against Iraq. But later, he became a vocal critic of the President's strategy in Iraq. He never gave up his battle to give voice to those who didn't have one.

That may have been why filmmaker Stephen Spielberg chose him as one of the subjects for his 1999 documentary, "Last Days." In that film, the legendary director took five survivors back to the Holocaust camps where they had been held and chronicled their experiences, as they returned to the scene of such pain and devastation. Lantos told me being part of the film was difficult.

"Anytime any of us who survived the Holocaust needs to relive it, talk about it, share our thoughts, it's never a joyous experience."

But he pointed to that gorgeous photograph of his family members and, in his still strong Hungarian accent, said they were the reason he chose to relive that experience.

"No amount of conversation can take the place of seeing and experiencing via this enormously powerful film; the period and behavior of people, both the evil and vicious behavior and very noble behavior of people."

The film arose out of Spielberg's project to document the Holocaust. Using profits from the award-winning film "Schindler's List," Spielberg's Shoah Project has interviewed tens of thousands of survivors.

Lantos said he often wondered why Spielberg chose him as one of the five subjects in the documentary. The survivors didn't know one another. But Lantos said they did share a common character trait: a strong desire to live and live well.

"There's a degree of resiliency in these five human beings that have been through literally hell, as much hell as human beings can go through, and each in his or her own way has built a normal life. That was perhaps the best answer to Hitler's plan."

Once when I interviewed Lantos in his office in Washington, D.C., as we were wrapping up, I shared with him the good news of my engagement. He immediately brought in his wife, Annette, whom he always introduced at interviews, and they cheered, "Mazel tov" and each gave me a big hug. They said they loved weddings and asked if they could attend. Their schedules conflicted with my wedding date, but I'm sure if there was a way, they would have been there. He and Annette said that weddings and births are the most important events in our lives.

When it was time for me to leave, Lantos walked my crew and me to the elevator and waited until it arrived, waving good bye as the doors shut. It would be that way every time I interviewed him — sharing a cup of tea, going over family photos, and a personal escort. The congressman always found time to enjoy life's little pleasures.

When he died, he was surrounded by his devoted wife Annette, his two loving daughters, and most of their grandchildren, and even two great-grandchildren. Lantos would say that was proof of a life lived well.