A leading pro-Israel lawmaker and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress will retire at the end of his current term.
In a statement on Wednesday Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a 14- term veteran, revealed he is being treated for cancer of the esophagus.
"In view of this development and the treatment it will require, I will not seek reelection," said the 79-year-old Lantos.
Lantos is currently chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a post that has given him unusual clout in Israel-related policy. His likeliest successor as chair is Rep. Howard Berman, also a California Democrat and strong pro-Israel voice.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, Lantos was part of a partisan group fighting the Nazis – and attributed his survival to the refuge he found in
a safe house established by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. As a member of Congress, Lantos spearheaded the effort to make Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen and pressed the former Soviet Union to reveal long-classified information about the rescuer’s fate.
(For Lantos’ official account of his Holocaust-era experiences, click HERE )
Lantos has been in the forefront of congressional efforts to document and fight anti-Semitism. He also played a significant role in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"I worked very closely with him on the Museum, where he was enormously helpful and wise," said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and one of the Museum’s founders. "I also worked with him on the film ‘The Last Days’ (an award-winning documentary about Hungarian Holocaust survivors). He has been a towering moral voice, and he has always conducted himself with a profound respect for the Jewish experience."
Lantos was also a congressional leader on the issue of Soviet Jewry.
"Tom Lantos and his wife Annette were in the forefront of activism to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s," said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a Jewish human rights group that was a leader in the Soviet Jewry movement. "All of those who are concerned about the cause of human rights will miss his leadership and passion."
And Lantos’ personality; with his retirement "there will be one less colorful personality in the House," Levin said.
"Tom Lantos is one of America’s leading experts on foreign affairs and most effective advocates for human rights both at home and abroad," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday. "As the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, he has used his position to fight for those whose voices have been silenced by hatred and oppression. On the homefront, Tom Lantos is a champion for working families and a great advocate for protecting the environment."
Lantos has frequently said his experiences in Hungary gave rise to his activism on human rights and social justice.
"It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a Member of Congress," Lantos said in announcing his retirement. "I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country."