Friends, colleagues react to Tom Lantos' death

December 22, 2008 2:12:05 PM PST
As the only Holocaust survivor serving in congress, Tom Lantos carved a reputation based on a fight for human rights around the world. On Monday, his many friends and colleagues remembered a man of great compassion and integrity.

In the office above the Congressional District, this was a day of sad news for his staff.

"Well, we knew he was ill," says Betty Carlson, Lantos' Office Manager.

Betty Carlson began working for Tom Lantos in 1984. The congressman's death from cancer of the esophagus is a source of grief and cause for reflection.

"He was the most concerned human being I ever met when there was an injustice, regardless of where it was," says Carlson.

People knew Tom Lantos best because he is the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress. As a 16 year-old, he watched the Nazi's occupy his native Hungary and kill his family.

"I was a very old man at a very young age," said Lantos.

Instead of that experience hardening him, Lantos became life-long voice and conscience for human rights.

"I feel I have a tremendous opportunity, as a survivor of the Holocaust, to bring a moral dimension to our foreign policy," said Lantos.

Tom and his wife, Annette Lantos, met in Europe before the Holocaust. She married a man that people describe as a moral presence -- a person who never seemed to raise his voice because he did not have to.

People remember Lantos from his recent grilling of the chairman of Yahoo for sharing the identities of dissidents with the Chinese government.

"These are unlawful orders. These are orders of a police state. Orders your company should oppose," said Lantos.

Lantos used to say that he became an American 'by choice". In his fourteenth congressional term, this one-time school administrator from Millbrae ascended to Chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He traveled the world, but never forgot his constituents.

Amjad Naber owns a café which Lantos used to visit when in town. The congressman would bring souvenirs from foreign countries and remained accessible.

"Pleasant man, helpful man. He was a genius and well educated. It's a big loss for us," says Naber.

As flags fly at half staff in Washington, they mark the loss a unique human being -- one who blended power, humanitarian compassion, and will. Tom Lantos was eighty years old.

"Personally, I know that if I went to him for anything, the first thing he would say is 'what can I do for you? What do you need? What do you want?'" says Carlson

Congressman Lantos was surrounded by his wife, two children, and 18 grandchildren when he passed early Monday morning at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. One of Lantos' legacies is the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which he founded in 1983, and which is open to every senator and house member. No word, yet, on plans for a memorial service.


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