Rep. Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, has died, spokeswoman Lynne Weill said Monday.
Lantos, 80, a Democrat, disclosed last month that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.
He said at the time that he would serve out his 14th term but would not seek re-election in his northern California district, which includes part of San Francisco.
The timing of the diagnosis was a particular blow because Lantos had assumed his committee chairmanship just a year earlier, when Democrats retook control of Congress. He said then that in a sense his whole life had been a preparation for the job - and it was.
Lantos, who referred to himself as "an American by choice," was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary, and was 16 when Adolf Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. He survived by escaping twice from a forced labor camp and coming under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status and visa-issuing powers to save thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Lantos' mother and much of his family perished in the Holocaust. That background gave Lantos a moral authority unique in Congress and he used it repeatedly to speak out on foreign policy issues, sometimes courting controversy.
'Only in the United States'
He was a strong supporter of Israel and a lead advocate for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war, though he would come to be a strong critic of the Bush administration's strategy. In 2006 Lantos was one of five members of Congress arrested in a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy over the genocide in Darfur.
In October 2007, as Foreign Affairs chairman, Lantos defied Bush administration opposition by moving through his committee a measure that would recognize the World War I-era killings of Armenians as a genocide, something strongly opposed by Turkey.
Lantos was elected to Congress after spending three decades teaching economics at San Francisco State University, working as a business consultant and serving as a foreign policy commentator on television. He challenged a Republican incumbent in 1980 after other Democrats passed up the chance to run, and won narrowly, with 46 percent of the vote. He subsequently won re-election by comfortable
"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 upon announcing his retirement last month. "I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country."