Very few people can bring together, on one stage, The Secretary of State of the U.S., the foreign minister of Israel, the Secretary General of the U.N., a Rabbi, Elie Wiesel, an international Rock Star, the Speaker of the House, Congressmen and a Senator, Republicans and Democrats.
As I witnessed the Memorial Ceremony for Tom Lantos z”l, at the Capitol in Washington DC, I couldn’t but marvel at the love that these politicians and celebrities had for this unique man.
A lot has been written in the newspapers about this Celebration of Lantos’s life. But being there, was a unique experience. Hundreds of invited guests gathered in the hall. Among the guests I could recognize many politicians, including Bob Dole, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry. But also dozens of interns, some who worked for Congressman Lantos almost 30 years ago, carrying old pictures and pamphlets, hugging friends they haven’t seen for years, and crying. I was standing next to Brian, who worked for Lantos in 1981. Brian was wearing the pin they used for Lantos’s first campaign, before he was elected to Congress. Evelyn Szelenyi, Lantos’s close assistant who flew from California recognized Brian and hugged him. She told me, in tears, about how Tom related to his interns and staff. How he was, above all, a warm and open person. Another former staff member spoke about Lantos’s energy. ”We were in our twenties and he was in his seventies, and we couldn’t keep up with him!”
As the ceremony began, the dignitaries spoke, as well as family members. His wife and childhood sweetheart Annette said ”We were together for 70 years”. He had two daughters and 17 grandchildren, as well as two great-grandchildren. All were present. One of the grandchildren, Charity Sunshine Tilleman-Dick took the stage and sang one of her grandfather’s favorite songs. Condoleezza Rice spoke about the central place his grandchildren had in Tom’s life. She mentioned the time Mr. Lantos asked her to perform in a concert to support research for Charity Sunshine’s disease – Pulmonary hypertension. Baruch Tenembaum, the founder of IRWF, still remembers being there in the rare occasion when the Secretary of State played a piano concert in an intimate setting.
Much was said about Lantos’s relentless fight for human rights, a concern that, together with the fact that Wallenberg saved his life, brought him to co-found the IRWF ten years ago.
It was a morning of very personal stories, told by some of the most public figures. Stories of trips to Budapest, of a visit to an airfoce base in Israel with Tzipi Livni, of a father’s love of dogs ”he knew what is ‘dog’ spelled backwards”, about his passion for music, and above all for his family. Rabbi Schneier, as well as Senator Shays, Majority Leader in Congress Steny Hoyer, and Nanci Pelosi, all reminded us that Tom Lantos was a Holocaust survivor, who came to the U.S. penniless, but with passion and dedication became a champion of human rights, a close friend of Israel and the first Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress.
Rock Star Bono took the stage and sang, with the audience, a song by ”the famous Hungarian singer Ion Van Lenon”, ”All you need is Love”.
In an event of laughter and tears, stories and songs, Tom Lantos, our Co-Founder and dear friend, was remembered.