BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A statue of Hungarian-born U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the U.S. Congress, was unveiled Thursday in Budapest as those attending praised the man known for his advocacy of democracy and human rights around the world.
A California Democrat in office from 1981 until his death in 2008, Lantos frequently visited his homeland, often warning against anti-Semitism while also supporting Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries.
"During his whole life, his heart was in Hungary," said his widow Annette, speaking at the unveiling ceremony on what would have been Lantos' 90th birthday.
The top U.S. diplomat in Hungary remembered Lantos as "Hungarian by birth and a dedicated American by choice" who worked to build consensus and strengthen relations between the two countries.
"Tom Lantos called on all of us — not just those in government service, but all citizens, all human beings — to show courage in the face of fear, to smooth difficulties and correct mistakes," said David Kostelancik, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy. "He called on us to remember that the very essence of our civilization, the belief we hold most dear, is the inherent dignity and worth of every single person."
During World War II, the teenage Lantos, like many other Jews, was sent to a forced labor camp, this one not far from Budapest. He escaped but was caught and severely beaten, escaped again and managed to survive the final stages of the war with relatives in a Budapest safe house set up by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing Swedish diplomatic passes.
Lantos joined Wallenberg's anti-Nazi underground network, carrying messages, food and medicines around the Hungarian capital. After the war ended, Lantos found out that his mother and other relatives had been killed in the Holocaust. At just 19, he arrived in the United States in 1947 on an academic scholarship.
In 1983, Lantos co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which after his death was renamed the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. In 2011, the Hungarian government and the U.S. Senate established the Budapest-based Tom Lantos Institute, a research institute and think-tank focusing mainly on Jewish and Roma issues.
In a video during Thursday's ceremony, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recalled being Lantos' guest in Hungary and said he often cited a Lantos quote in his own speeches — "The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest."
The bronze statue with a special red patina, depicting a slightly larger-than-life Lantos sitting on a bench with his favorite dogs, was created by Mamikon Yengibarian, a Budapest-based Armenian sculptor. It was placed on Tom Lantos Promenade in Budapest's 13th district, near his high school, the Berzsenyi Daniel Gimnazium.
Yengibarian said he wanted to show "a magnificent, brilliant man who is not afraid ... and fights for justice and humanity until the end."