By Frank Mankiewicz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
The headline over his obituary described him as "California Congressman and Holocaust Survivor Tom Lantos." If Tom had written it, the order would have been reversed, for everything else in his life derived from that hard fact: Holocaust survivor.
I gained a deeper understanding of his suffering when, in 1990, my wife and I were to spend some time in Hungary, and Tom insisted we be his guests for at least a few days in Budapest. He introduced us to his past, serving as our personal guide on a tour that took us deep into an unspeakably brutal time when almost the entire Jewish population of Hungary was deported to death camps or killed on the spot. The Nazis sent Tom to a camp, too, but he escaped and faced recapture several times.
Our tour began with a visit to the apartment where Lantos's life was saved, where Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat, hid Tom and 18 other young Jewish Hungarian men from the Nazi rampage.
Lantos, with blond hair and blue eyes, didn't appear to be Jewish, so he was selected to go out on the street every few days to buy food and medicine for the sequestered. He told us it was the most terrifying time of his life, that he was desperately afraid the Nazis would spot him, find him suspicious, and force him to drop his trousers so they could determine if he had been circumcised -- the only test they knew for Jewishness. And it did happen, he told us, but the police were too ignorant to know what they saw, and he was sent on his way.
Accompanying us through Budapest -- as, indeed, she accompanied Tom everywhere he went -- was his wife, Annette, who Tom claimed was a cousin of the famed Gabor beauties (she looked the part). Also Hungarian, she too escaped the Nazis with the help of Wallenberg.
On our Budapest tour, the four of us next stopped at a restored synagogue and adjoining cemetery that told all that needed to be said about the Holocaust. There were hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of tombstones, each with the dates of birth and death of Budapest's Jews. Tom grimly pointed out to us that the dates of death inscribed for almost all of them were between February and June of 1944, and that the place was one of the death camps. It was a sight we could never forget.
He was the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, and he served 14 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he chaired the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Through it all, he conducted himself with the dignity and -- yes -- the passion to which his past entitled him.
We first met in 1953, when I was a law student and he a graduate student at Berkeley, heading for his PhD in economics. We co-chaired an adult education study group run by the American Foundation for Political Education, and the required reading ranged from the New Testament to the Declaration of Independence to Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
A quarter-century later, while on the faculty at San Francisco State, he ran for -- and won -- the House seat vacated by the death of Rep. Leo Ryan. I had come to Washington years before, and I was able to persuade my employer, Gray & Co., to give some office space to Tom's Congressional Human Rights Caucus. There, I could watch up close Tom's dedication to the cause of the oppressed and how he championed the legacy of Wallenberg, his savior.
Tom took everything he did seriously, and staffers said, through the years, that he was a dedicated taskmaster but a boss ready to understand difficulties. He did not suffer fools gladly, if at all, and could be known to lose his temper, accentuated by the Central European accent he never lost. But he was an intense American patriot and supported every effort against tyranny, whether in Iraq or Sudan.
Years ago, the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the late social activist, told me not to be fooled by "nice guys," but to judge whether someone was a "good man." Tom Lantos was not always a nice guy, but he was always a good man.