WASHINGTON (JTA) – The flags dipped at half-staff over the Capitol, the warm remembrances flooded e-mail inboxes, the “Have you heard?” phone calls took a solemn tone.
U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) earned all these tributes. He died Monday of esophageal cancer at the age of 80.
The mourning was not just for a man but for the unique voice of the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress.
“We lose a voice for human rights, which was in his case unique,” Elie Wiesel, the novelist whose own writings have become icons of Holocaust remembrance, told JTA. “He spoke always against oppression, against persecution, against racism.”
Lantos died at the Naval Medical Center in suburban Bethesda, Md., surrounded by his wife, Annette, two daughters and many of his 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“As the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, Tom was a living reminder that we must never turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent at the hands of evil men,” President Bush said.
“Having lived through the worst evil known to mankind, Tom Lantos translated the experience into a lifetime commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism, Holocaust education, and a commitment to the State of Israel,” U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement.
Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said Israel “lost one of our greatest friends.”
The remembrances of Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, were a kaleidoscope of the human rights causes he championed since his election to the House in 1980.
Wiesel remembered Lantos’ contributions to the building of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which Wiesel helped found.
“From the very beginning in Washington he was with us, involved in every step leading to the building of the museum, developing it into a source for archives, learning and teaching,” he said.
Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia, focused on Lantos’ role in the 1980s in pressing the Soviet Union to release its Jews. Lantos made several trips to Russia to meet with refuseniks and championed them in Congress.
“He was forthright, compassionate and deeply committed to the cause of freeing Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Levin told JTA.
In 2003 he would co-found the House’s Human Rights Caucus.
Other encomiums came from The American Jewish World Service, which has led the Jewish community in pressing for an end to the genocide in Sudan; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which praised his steadfast support for Israel; and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which commemorated his contributions to social welfare at home.
“He has been a valiant voice demanding more action against the Darfur genocide and at the same time a valiant leader in the fight to stop the scourge of HIV/AIDS from devastating the developing world,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger told JTA from Uganda, where she was touring AIDS relief projects.
Lantos “blazed a trail in the United States Congress fighting for education, health care, human rights, and Israel,” said JCPA, the public-policy umbrella body for several influential national Jewish organizations, the synagogue movements and more than 100 local Jewish communities.
Adding their remembrances were the United Jewish Communities, B’nai B’rith International, the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Hadassah and Americans for Peace Now.
The Democratic National Committee remembered Lantos’ service to his Silicon Valley district.
“In serving his constituents and his country, Tom never forgot the Democratic Party’s ideals of freedom, fairness and opportunity for all,” the chairman of the DNC, Howard Dean, said in a statement.
Lantos was not afraid to take on his allies. On the foreign affairs committee, he blasted Silicon Valley giants like Google and Yahoo for colluding with China’s government in censorship. He authored tough Iran sanctions legislation, but broke with pro-Israel orthodoxy by offering to meet with the Islamic Republic’s leaders.
Pro-Israel groups also opposed a nonbinding resolution that recognized the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians as a genocide, worried that it would cause a rift between Israel and Turkey. Lantos pushed the measure through the committee, unwilling to countenance what he saw as genocide revisionism.
His appeal crossed political aisles: Both the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition issued statements mourning his passing.
Top Republicans on his committee recalled him fondly.
“An unfailingly gracious and courageous man, Tom was recognized by friends and colleagues alike as a leader who left an enviable legacy of service to his country,” said Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the committee’s ranking member.
The campaigns of the two Democrats left in the presidential field, U.S. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) also released statements mourning his passing.
Lantos was 16 in 1944 when the Nazis invaded his native Hungary; his Web site tells of his fighting in the anti-Nazi underground.
In 1947 he came to the United States to study. Lantos was a noted economist and consultant prior to his House election in 1980.
Expressions of his love for his adopted country were as constant as his defenses of human rights.
“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,” he said in his statement last month announcing his retirement. “I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”
Lantos, said Wiesel, died too young – even at 80, even after serving nearly three decades in public office. He noted that Lantos only ascended to the committee chairmanship in 2006 after Democrats regained Congress.
“He had influence,” Wiesel said. “He would have had more had he lived.”