July 9, 2007

Holocaust helped shape Lantos’ path


Tom and Annette Lantos met as children in Hungary. They have been married 57 years.

Neither Tom nor Annette Lantos can exactly remember when they first met.

But both will tell you it was their destiny to share their life work together fighting for human rights around the world. As Holocaust survivors, they have a unique perspective on what it is like to not only fight for others but also fight for their lives.

They met as children in Hungary and Tom, 79, boasts about an early photo in which he is 11 and she is 7. Even as Annette went into hiding at the Portuguese Embassy to escape the Nazis and Tom was in a local labor camp, they sent letters to each other through intermediaries. Annette is the first cousin of Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor and this relation placed her father on the top 10 list of wanted people. She eventually was taken to Switzerland in November 1944 and returned to a severely hobbled country in November 1945. In the meantime, Tom spent time in the labor camps while others in his family perished on the Soviet front. He escaped the camp and was caught and beaten.

”They beat me to a pulp. I’m pleasantly surprised I survived,” he said.

He escaped again and this time made it the approximate 22 miles to a safe place run by Raoul Wallenberg, a man he said he owes much gratitude and to whose work he tries to aspire. He said his blond hair and blue eyes were the reason he escaped detection. Though 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust and Hungary itself lost 600,000, Tom and Annette Lantos said they feel fortunate to not be among them. It took a few months for them to find each other again.

It was this experience that molded U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, into the legislator he is today. Though much of his time is taken up with the business of the country and his new position as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee makes for a heavy workload, it is extinguishing human rights abuses that is at the crux of his passion.

”What I do is 1 percent human rights and 99 percent everything else whether it is NATO or China to you-name-it,” he said.

This is where his wife of 57 years comes in.

”We had a whole new life and we wanted to work together. It was a chance to spin off of our experience of the Holocaust,” Annette said.

Tom founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983 and said they act as a ”Congressional couple.”

”Nobody does what Annette does. When we go to North Korea, when we go to Syria or when we go to Saudi Arabia, she is with me,” he said. ”We are like a bicycle built for two.”

The Human Rights Caucus does not get a lot of attention but is active in shining the light on abuses in countries such as Iraq, Vietnam, Sudan and China. Annette also has a keen interest in helping interns active with the Lantos Humanities in Action Fellowship Program that helps European graduate students. In 1987, she was instrumental in getting the Dalai Lama to visit the United States and testify in front of the caucus. The State Department did not want the Dalai Lama to visit because it may jeopardize U.S. relations with China. Eventually, he was allowed and his visits are now commonplace.

As much as Tom tries to give her credit, she is as prone to do the same.

”Luckily, my husband did not allow himself to be intimidated,” she said.

After 26 years in Congress, Tom has learned not to be intimidated and said he sometimes uses his Holocaust experience as leverage.

”On some issues it is leverage, on other issues it is the ability to embarrass. Embarrassment is an incredibly powerful tool,” he said.

For instance, persecuted followers of the Falun Gong movement were recently arrested and sent back to Taiwan from Hong Kong though they had permission. China has been told not to interfere with human rights in Hong Kong and Tom said he will do everything in his power to embarrass them.

Whether it is protecting the right of Falun Gong or those in East Timor, Burma, Darfur or even in this country, Tom said he is always trying to live up to Wallenberg who did so much to save others in a very dangerous time. With Annette by his side, he said there is more he wants to do, but the Holocaust and the work of Wallenberg is something he will not forget.

”He was a man emerging from the shadows of the Holocaust, from the depths of persecution and despair to a place where he can help so many others,” Annette said.