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Tom Lantos and his wife Annette circa 1950. Photo courtesy of his office
Spokeswoman Lynne Weil said this morning that the 80-year-old Lantos died at Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

Earlier this year, Lantos announced he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and would not seek re-election. Lantos, who became chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee last year, intended to finish his 14th two-year term while undergoing treatment.

Born in Budapest to a middle-class Jewish family, Lantos was 16 when the Nazis occupied Hungary and sent him to a labor camp. He escaped twice and eventually made it to a safe house run by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. With most of his family killed by the Nazis, Lantos joined the resistance. He arrived in the United States on a college scholarship, earned a doctorate in economics and taught for 30 years at San Francisco State University before winning a congressional seat in 1980.

In Congress, Lantos has spoken out for civil liberties, based on his commanding knowledge of world affairs. Lantos co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983. Since becoming chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs a year ago, he has advocated tirelessly for human rights in China, Russia, Burma and Darfur. Late last year, he assailed Yahoo executives for handing over the identity of a Chinese activist, telling them in not quite politically correct fashion: "Morally, you are pygmies."

In announcing last week that he won't seek re-election, Lantos noted his American odyssey from a "penniless survivor of the Holocaust" to a 14-term congressman, and expressed thanks to the United States.