Tom Lantos: Politician and Holocaust survivor

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The Independent Online

Many US politicians are powerful advocates of human rights, and even more are strong supporters of the state of Israel. But none ever brought such passion and moral authority to those two roles as Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to have served in Congress, and whose early life in Nazi-controlled wartime Hungary moulded his world view for ever.

Had Lantos been a native Californian, his career would have been impressive enough: a doctorate in economics at Berkeley, followed by a successful career as a university professor, investor and (briefly) a foreign affairs pundit on television, before being elected in 1980 as representative for the state's 12th Congressional district, covering southern San Francisco.

In Washington he quickly emerged as one of the Democrats' most influential voices on foreign affairs and, after his party had regained control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections, became chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – the job, he said at the time, "for which my whole life has been a preparation".

But in a sense, nothing that came after quite matched the experience of Tamas Peter Lantos, a teenage Jewish boy in occupied Budapest. His mother and many members of his family died in the Holocaust; twice the young Lantos was sent to a forced labour camp by the Nazis, and twice he escaped. Finally he gained refuge in a building whose residents were protected by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews.

Blond and blue-eyed, the 16-year-old boy even worked as an agent for Wallenberg in the last months of the German occupation. "I looked very Aryan, so I was of value," Lantos would remember. "I could move around the city with some degree of assurance that I wouldn't be caught and killed." In Budapest, too, he acquired his lifelong interest in foreign affairs, listening on a crackly radio to the banned broadcasts of the BBC.

In 1947 Lantos emigrated to the United States, thereafter describing himself as "a secular Jew" who was "an American by choice". But his origins were ever apparent – not least his accent, pronouncedly Hungarian even after 60 years.

Decades later, his Capitol Hill office, decked with mementoes of Wallenberg, served as an unofficial shrine to the man who was arrested by the Russians and sent back to the Soviet Union, never to be seen again. Lantos and his wife Annette were prime movers in having Wallenberg made an honorary US citizen in 1981; nothing delighted them more than when the US postal service issued a commemorative Wallenberg stamp in 1997.

In Congress Lantos was respected, but always something of a loner and never afraid of controversy. Some of his sharpest barbs were aimed at modern Europeans deemed insufficiently resolute in the fight against oppression. In 2007, he called Gerhard Schröder, the former German Chancellor, "a political prostitute" because of his links to the energy business in increasingly autocratic Russia. When the Germans protested, Lantos added that his remark "will probably offend prostitutes".

Supportive of the invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush's "war on terror", he claimed separately, and acidly, that Europeans were more concerned about the few hundred prisoners at Guantanamo Bay than they had been during the Second World War about Auschwitz. He also enraged the Dutch by saying they were morally obliged to help America in the fight against terrorism, because the US had liberated the Netherlands from the Germans.

Such outbursts showed how Lantos viewed world affairs through the prism of personal experience. The same went for human rights abuses, from Iraq and Myanmar to Darfur province in Sudan. In 2006, he was one of five members of Congress arrested in a protest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington over Darfur.

Like many who had backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he turned into a fierce critic of the management of the war. But on the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive force, against Saddam Hussein, Lantos never wavered. "Had I been in power, I would have preferred in the mid-1930s to pre-empt Hitler," he would say, "because the world war cost slightly over 50 million lives."

Rupert Cornwell

Tamas (Thomas) Peter Lantos, politician: born Budapest 1 February 1928; Member, US House of Representatives 1981-2008; Chairman, House Foreign Relations Committee 2007-08; married 1950 Annette Tillemann (two daughters); died Bethesda, Maryland 11 February 2008.