25th Tikkun Olam Award to Tom Lantos and The Lantos Foundation
“Tom Lantos was a true American hero. He was the embodiment of what it meant to have one’s freedom denied and then to find it and to insist that America stand for spreading freedom and prosperity to others.” — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Tom Lantos will be long remembered for his profound moral convictions and his deep commitment to human rights. During his life he helped and inspired numerous individuals around the world. Many more will feel the rewards of his work for years to come. Tom was born in Budapest, Hungary, where as a teenager he was sent to a forced labor camp by the German Nazi occupant military. After escaping the labor camp, he sought refuge with an aunt who lived in a safe house operated by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status and visa-issuing powers to save thousands of Hungarian Jews. Tom quickly joined the anti-Nazi resistance. After the Russians liberated Budapest in 1945, Tom tried to locate his mother and family members but came to realize that they had all perished in the Holocaust.
In 1947, Tom came to the United States to study on a Hillel Foundation Scholarship. He earned his B.A. in 1949 and M.A. in economics in 1950 both from the University of Washington in Seattle. Three years later he received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. He subsequently served as a foreign policy commentator on television and as a senior advisor to several U.S. Senators.
Elected to office in 1980, Tom rose to become Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and one of the country’s leading champions of human rights. His commitment to this issue was forged from the loss of his family during the Holocaust.
After being diagnosed with esophageal cancer in late December 2007, Congressman Lantos announced that he would not seek reelection. He said at the time, “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. I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”
The only survivor of the Holocaust ever elected to Congress, Tom Lantos was in his 14th term when he died in February, 2008. His Democratic colleagues elected him chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January 2007. He was also a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Throughout his adult life Tom sought to be a voice for human rights and civil liberties. He and Annette Lantos, his childhood sweetheart and wife of nearly 58 years, were full partners both in Congress and in life, and they continued their work right up to his final days. Tom Lantos was the founding co-chairman of Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Through the Caucus, Lantos served as a voice for the rights of persecuted racial, religious, and ethnic minorities around the world. After his death, Congress permanently established the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
Lantos brought major concerns to Congress such as violence against women, killings in Darfur and the Congo, and the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. He also brought attention to the lesser-known causes, such as abuses against Tibetans, the Kurds, the Burmese, and indigenous people on every continent. Tom was a strong opponent of anti-Semitism and the persecution of religious minorities and also of abuses against gays and lesbians. He also founded the Congressional Friends of Animals Caucus.
Honors & Awards:
On June 19, 2008, President Bush posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – to Tom Lantos, which Annette Lantos accepted on his behalf at a White House ceremony. In his remarks, President Bush honored Tom for his commitment to human rights and his devoted service to the United States.
In May 2008, Annette accepted an Honorary Doctorate from Hebrew University on Tom’s behalf. The event took place at the Mount Scopus campus overlooking Jerusalem and coincided with the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the university’s founding. The coastal town of Netanya, Israel renamed a boulevard in Tom’s honor. It is now known as the Tom Lantos Boulevard.
In recognition of Tom’s unwavering support for animal rights, The Humane Society of the United States honored Tom with the Joseph Wood Krutch Medal, the organization’s highest honor.
The California State Legislature honored Tom by approving a bill to name two new highway portals the “Tom Lantos Tunnels at Devils Slide.” Tom worked for three decades to make the Devils Slide bypass project a reality for the people of his congressional district.
In February 2008, Tom was posthumously awarded the Grand Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. The Grand Cross was presented to Annette by the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States. Tom received the Grand Croix of the Order of the Dannebrog (The Royal Danish Cross)
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The Lantos Foundation Mission
To strengthen the role of human rights in American foreign policy and to be a vital voice standing up for our nation’s most important values of decency, dignity, freedom, and justice in every corner of the world. We intend to both educate and advocate on behalf of the simple yet profound truth that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers — every one of us and every one of them. In so doing we hope to carry on Congressman Lantos’ remarkable legacy of service to humanity.
For almost 30 years, Tom and Annette Lantos worked together in the Congress, fighting for the human rights and dignity of people in every corner of the world. This commitment to human rights was a shared passion, born out of their joint experience as Holocaust survivors. With colleagues on both sides of the aisle, they co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and waged many important legislative battles. After his death, Congress permanently established the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which continues the work of The Human Rights Caucus.
In the final weeks of his life, Tom asked that a non-profit be established to carry on the work he felt so passionately about. Tom was often quoted saying, “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.” It is now the mission of The Lantos Foundation to never rest in standing up for our nation’s most important values. It is the steadfast devotion to those values of decency, dignity, and freedom that make us both the strongest and the most hopeful nation on the face of the earth. Tom believed this with every fiber of his being, and through the work of the Foundation we can, in Tom’s words, carry “the noble banner of human rights to every corner of the world.”
We continually refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to remember why we work towards our goal.