Eye of the Tiger
Updated: Jul 16
Among the first words I ever heard uttered by Congressman Tom Lantos of California were, “Mr. Constance, if you dare to take this action, I will fight you like a tiger.” Not many congressmen talked to me like that over the years, but when they did, it usually involved the National Archives planning to close a facility in their district.
We never took the step that would have introduced us to Lantos’ claws and teeth, as just the threat was adequate for us to change direction. However, through this episode I was introduced to the strength, morality, and heart of Tamás Péter Lantos, Holocaust survivor who served as a U.S. Representative from the 11th district of California from 1981 until his death in 2008. He was the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in the U.S. Congress.
The National Archives has a network of Regional Federal Records Centers (FRC) across the country, some co-located with Regional Archives (RA). Simply put, Records Centers house temporary records, that while accessed for transactional matters are not deemed “permanent” and will be destroyed at some point in their life cycle. Regional Archives house permanent records whose disbursement was designed to facilitate local research (i.e., tribal records close to their tribal nation and federal court records that cover cases from that state). To my NARA brethren…yes, it is more complicated than this, but this is a blog and not a university seminar.
One such paired FRC and RA is in San Bruno, California and has always been called our San Francisco facility. It is housed in the Leo J. Ryan Federal Building. It lies in the 11th congressional district.
During the tenure of Governor John Carlin as Archivist of the United States someone came up with the idea of closing some of our regional archives to save money. Real estate costs, staffing, and other annual expenses were deemed hard to justify when compared to the modest number of researcher visits at some of the locations.
The intangibles that come into play when trying to take away a local service are not how many people are benefitting, but who they are, how much they rely on the service, and how politically engaged they are or can become when their services are threatened.
Remember, these were the days before Ancestry.com and other on-line access to federal records. The microfilm access to census and other kinds of family history resources was critical to documenting legal rights or engaging in genealogy. There was no alternative.
Even after the explosion in family history interest set off my Alex Haley’s discovery of Kunta Kinte and the publication of ROOTS, genealogy was still a niche pastime for a relatively small percentage of Americans. But as a group they were becoming an important constituency of the National Archives. Some of my insensitive colleagues still stereotyped them as “little old ladies in tennis shoes” but we were about to find out that those tennis shoes can stomp you to death if you are not careful. And there was another pertinent fact that had escaped our notice when it came to the San Francisco Regional Archives.
I mentioned that it was housed in the Leo J. Ryan Federal Building. These are the kind of details that you rely on your Director of Congressional and Public Affairs to point out. Asleep at the switch? I was drooling on my shirt asleep on this one.
Leo J. Ryan was the beloved former congressman from the 11th district who was shot and killed in Guyana while investigating claims that people were being held against their will at the Peoples Temple in Jonestown. The Federal Building had been named in honor of this martyred local hero in a unanimous vote of the Congress. The bill was sponsored by (you guessed it) Congressman Tom Lantos.
So, when the rumor that the Archives was thinking of closing this facility hit the local genealogical research community, the San Francisco Chinese-American community, and others, it didn’t take long for word to get to Tom Lantos.
I was invited to a little one-on-one with the Congressman in his Capitol Hill office. I met Bob King that day, Tom’s longtime trusted chief of staff who would go on to become American Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights Issues. All Bob did that day was invite me into the office and sit next to the Congressman while he took me apart. I learned about what the facility meant to the Chinese American community and the unbridled political power of that community in San Francisco. I learned about what Leo Ryan meant to Tom Lantos and to California. I learned about what records meant to a Holocaust survivor and that careful German record keeping had informed him of the murder of his mother and his entire extended family at the hands of the Nazis. Records were also essential to the judgement at Nuremberg and delivery of ultimate justice. Records were important to Tom Lantos.
When he was finished with me, there wasn’t enough hide left to make a saddle for a June Bug. I assured him that I would report back to my colleagues and felt certain that any planning would be abandoned. I thanked him for his time and his information and completed my retreat. Bob King caught me in the hall and offered the sympathy that can only come from a fellow staffer. He was kind and professional that day and in all future dealings.
Upon my return to the office, I attempted to convey the passion play that I had just experienced, but my colleagues were still looking at the bottom line. Fortunately, my appeal to the Archivist, aided by the pleas of local staff, and the mountain of mail that we were receiving carried the day. Just the thought of telling Tom Lantos, “No, we are proceeding as planned” makes me shudder to this day.
I want you to know more about who this man was. This from the bio on his foundation webpage:
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.
Each year the National Archives holds a Naturalization Ceremony in the Rotunda on or about Constitution Day, September 17. Thirty petitioners for citizenship from a diverse selection of countries stand in front of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence and swear their allegiance to the United States. The event is held in conjunction with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, now a part of the Department of Homeland Security. During my tenure we would ask a high-profile naturalized citizen to deliver remarks on this special day and each new citizen would have the opportunity to call their family back home to share their joy.
One year, well after my unpleasant first meeting with Congressman Lantos, I reached out to him to speak on this special occasion, and he gladly agreed. On the day of the ceremony, he was joined by Bob King and Legislative Assistant, Jason Rosenstock, and we entertained them with a coffee in the Office of the Archivist. After a few pleasantries, the Congressman displayed his idiosyncratic personality by sitting down on the sofa, opening his copy of the New York Times, and reading the day’s news as the reception proceeded. John Carlin looked at me with a quizzical expression, I shrugged, and Lantos continued to read.
When the ceremony began and it was his turn to speak, Congressman Lantos gave the inspiring remarks that I just knew he would. Standing in that dimly lit rotunda flanked by the three Charter documents and looking into the eyes of thirty new American citizens, Tom Lantos became emotional on several occasions as he told the hundred or so observers what this country meant to him. It was a day I’ll never forget.
In early 2007 I retired from the National Archives after 35 years of service. Bob King and Tom Lantos were two stops on my farewell rounds on Capitol Hill.
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."
Just over one year later, Congressman Tom Lantos passed away on February 11, 2008. On June 19, 2008, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded Lantos the Medal of Freedom.
As regular readers of this blog know, I traveled to Eastern Europe earlier this year and spent five days in Budapest, Hungary. I thought about Tom Lantos a lot during my journey to his hometown. I asked locals whether they knew his name. Responses broke along generational lines, but those who knew him, revered his name, his story, and his courage. He is memorialized through the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest, an independent human and minority rights organization with a focus on Jewish and Roma communities. As a research and education platform it aims to bridge the gaps between research and policy.
In addition, visitors to the 13th district of Budapest can enjoy a lovely statue of Tom resting on a park bench with two of his beloved puppies. As he was in life, he is immaculately dressed and emits the style and dignity of his hometown.