Tuesday, January 08, 2008

An Immigrant's Tale

There are stories of the immigrant experience in the United States that sometimes make me downright emotional about this country, its freedoms and the people who through grit and sacrifice have made it what it is.

They remind us that we remain the land of opportunity, a beacon of light that shines brightly in the darkest corners of the world.

Such a story concerns a man named Tom Lantos who has spent his life overcoming overwhelming odds.

Unless you're a political junkie, you may not have heard of Lantos. He's a Congressman from the Bay Area who has served since 1981.

Lantos is low on flash but high on substance. He's chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affaris Committee and a Democrat who commands respect from both sides of the aisle as an expert in his field and a tireless advocate for human rights.

But it's the story of his journey to Capitol Hill that captivates us.

Lantos came to Congress by way of the Holocaust.

Born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, he was part of the resistance movement against the Nazis when they invaded his country. As a teenager, he was placed in a forced labor camp but escaped what was essentially a death sentence and was able to find shelter in a safe house in Budapest set up by Swedish humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg.

He survived but his family did not.

In 1947, Lantos was awarded an academic scholarship to study in the United States on the basis of an essay he wrote about U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In August of that year, he arrived in New York City after a week-long boat trip to America on a converted World War II troop ship. His only possession was a Hungarian salami, which U.S. customs officials promptly confiscated when he arrived. Just a few weeks after he left Hungary, the Communist party seized control of the country.

In a documentary called "The Last Days," which chronicled the fate of Hungary's Jews at the end of the war, Lantos described his experienceaboard the ship.

As he lined up for his first meal, he was astonished to see wicker baskets filled with oranges and bananas. When he asked a seaman if he could have one, he was told, "Man you can eat all the damn bananas and all the damn oranges you want."

"It was then I knew I was in heaven," he said.

He attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he received a B.A. and M.A. in economics. He moved to San Francisco in 1950 and began graduate studies at the UC Berkeley, where he later received his Ph.D. in economics. In 1953, he became an American citizen.

Lantos married his childhood sweetheart Annette and they settled in San Mateo County. He spent 30 years teaching economics at San Francisco State, served as a foreign affairs analyst on public television and won a seat on the Millbrae school board. When other Democrats passed on the chance to challenge GOP incumbent Rep. Bill Royer in 1980, he rose to the challenge and narrowly won.

Lantos and his wife had two daughters, both of whom promised a gift of grandchildren to their parents.

They now have 17.

"Because my wife and I were survivors of the Holocaust, because our own families were killed, the gift to us was to give us as many grandchildren as possible, to keep alive the names of those who were lost," he told the San Francisco Examiner.

"Our cup runneth over."

He is now face-to-face with cancer. Based on his past record, I wouldn't bet against him.

But he's 80 years old now with another tough obstacle to overcome. So he announced his retirement from Congress this past week. He received the cancer diagnosis from his doctors the week before Congress recessed in December, but spent two weeks consulting with doctors, his wife, Annette, and other family members before making his decision, aides said.

At a time when the economic, social and political aspects of immigration have caused controversy, Lantos' story underscores the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and they, or we, are our strength.

"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," he said.

"I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country."

That gratitute goes both ways.

No comments: