By Thomas Fields-Meyer
April 05, 1999 12:00 PM

The route to his congressional office from the Washington, D.C., apartment Rep. Tom Lantos shares with his wife, Annette, is the same every day—two blocks past the handsome town-houses of Capitol Hill—but he can never get used to it. “Every morning when my wife and I come to work and we look up at the Capitol and the flag I get goose bumps,” says Lantos, 71, now in his 10th term in Congress. “With my background, it is an unbelievable experience.”

Indeed, it sometimes seems unfathomable to Lantos that he is alive at all. A Hungarian-born Jew, he survived Hitler’s genocide, emerging from months of forced labor and hiding only to find nearly all of his family gone, victims of the Nazis. Five and a half decades later, that searing experience—which Lantos recounts in the new, critically acclaimed documentary The Last Days, produced by Steven Spielberg—has inspired him to become one of Washington’s leading champions of human rights. The only Holocaust survivor in Congress, he pressures the U.S. to oppose persecution in countries all over the globe. “To think that he could have been killed, and now here he is helping to make policy for the most powerful country in the world,” says James Moll, the film’s director. “It’s an incredible story.”

The tale began in Budapest, where Lantos was born in 1928, the only child of banker Pal Lantos and his wife, Anna, a high school English teacher, middle-class Jews who lived in a pleasant apartment overlooking the Danube. “We were totally assimilated, passionately patriotic and not very religious,” recalls Lantos, who spent youthful summers at the idyllic vacation home of his friend Annette Tillemann, daughter of one of Budapest’s wealthiest jewelers, who also was Jewish.

Though young Tom was keenly aware of the Nazi threat in Europe, it seemed remote and almost unreal until March of 1938, when Germany annexed neighboring Austria. Even at 10 years of age, Lantos says, “I knew this would have a tremendous impact on the lives of Hungarian Jews and obviously my life.” Soon afterward, the Hungarian government began shutting down Jewish-owned businesses and forcing Jews out of universities and the military. Several of Lantos’s relatives vanished into slave labor brigades. Then on March 19, 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary. From then on, says Lantos, “we lived from hour to hour and day to day.”

Within weeks, some 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps, but Lantos, then 16, was sent instead to work in a steel factory, then a weapons plant. In August 1944 he and hundreds of others were assigned to repair a railroad bridge in Szob that Allied planes repeatedly bombed. “One day, all the young men around me were killed except me,” Lantos recalls. “I was convinced I wouldn’t survive.” After being beaten by guards and hearing of a rescue effort afoot, he slipped past an inattentive guard late one night and made his way to Budapest. There, an aunt had an apartment that had been made a safe house under the protection of the Swedish government by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who would miraculously save as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews by creating such refuges and providing fake Swedish passports, called schutzpassen. “It was a three-bedroom apartment designed for one family,” Lantos recalls. “And there must have been 50 or 60 people crowded into it.” But Wallenberg took note of Lantos—whose fair hair and blue eyes helped him pass as a gentile—and enlisted him as a clandestine runner. Lantos risked life and limb to distribute money, medicine and food among the thousands of Jews hiding in Wallenberg’s network of shelters. “I was doing things which in retrospect, rationally, I never should have done,” Lantos says, “because they took more courage than I’m sure I had.”

Somehow he survived until the day in January 1945 when a Soviet soldier burst into the safe house and announced the city had been liberated. Lantos emerged to find a devastated Budapest, where he cast about for months trying to find remnants of his family. “For a while I had hope,” he says. “And then I had no hope.” Among all his relatives, only the aunt whose apartment he had shared survived. Meanwhile, Annette, thanks to a schutzpass, had been able to flee Hungary with her mother and wait out the war in Switzerland. After receiving a letter from Tom in July 1945, she returned to Budapest that fall to learn that much of her family had been murdered. Lantos rushed to meet her. “It was probably the happiest moment of my life,” he recalls. “I felt that the wholeness of my life had been restored.”

Of course, he could never truly reclaim his shattered past. Starting medical school in Budapest, he switched to economics after encountering his first cadaver in anatomy class. After spotting a notice for a Hillel Foundation scholarship to the University of Washington, he applied, was accepted and traveled in 1947 to Seattle, where he continued his studies in economics. Annette joined him a year later. They married in July 1950 and moved to San Francisco, where Lantos spent 30 years on the faculty at San Francisco State. Annette worked as a substitute teacher and raised their two daughters, Annette, now 47, and Katrina, 43. After serving as foreign-affairs adviser to Sen. Joseph Biden, Lantos ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1980. “As an adviser you have some impact,” he says. “As a player you have much greater impact.” Propelled by a moving testimonial in a TV ad about his life and his love of America, he swept to victory. “This is my way of saying thank you to a society that has made me born again in a very fundamental sense,” Lantos says of his work in Congress.

He has “anger and deep caring and sincere concern for repressed peoples everywhere,” says Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), who since 1983 has co-chaired the Congressional Human Rights Caucus with Lantos. Adds Lantos: “Having lived it, I feel a very strong sense of responsibility in preventing others from having to go through what I did.”

He and Annette also feel an incalculable debt to their savior, Wallenberg, who disappeared after being taken prisoner in the Soviet Union in 1945. Since 1977, Annette Lantos has lobbied Presidents, diplomats and foreign governments to try to solve the mystery of his fate. Lantos’s first act after his 1980 election was to introduce the bill that made Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen—a distinction shared only by Winston Churchill. “In an age short of heroes, he is a genuine hero,” Annette has written. “He saved our faith in humanity.”

As diligently as they have worked to keep Wallenberg’s memory alive, Tom and Annette Lantos have rarely told their own stories publicly. “We don’t enjoy reliving the nightmare,” he says. But four years ago they were interviewed as part of an oral-history project sponsored by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah foundation, which aims to record as many such accounts as possible to document the Holocaust (in Hebrew Shoah, or calamity). Then director Moll chose to feature it among four other Hungarian survivors’ stories. “Their willingness to contemplate the unthinkable, to describe their horrifying experiences,” wrote The New York Times, “attests to their hope that humanity can learn from the past.”

For Lantos, that is the point. In the film he is shown on the very bridge where he once labored under the Nazis—but this time he is surrounded by four of his 17 grandchildren, who listen somberly as he tells the story of his survival. Having endured one of history’s grisliest chapters, he is determined to do what he can to keep it from being repeated. His motivation is not bitterness but hope. “I neither forget nor do I forgive,” he says. “But I move beyond.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Margery Sellinger in Washington, D.C., and Penelope Rowlands in San Francisco