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Thomas Peter Lantos (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈlɒntoʃ ˈtɒmaːʃ ˈpeːtɛr]) was born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. Many of his family members were teachers, including an uncle who was a professor at the University of Budapest, and a grandmother who was a high school principal. His life in Hungary would change after the Third Reich annexing of Austria in 1938, with the Austrian border just 100 miles from Budapest. Lantos remembered this period and a newspaper headline he read when he was only 10, "Hitler Marches into Austria." Even at a young age, he understood the significance of this invasion:|
"I sensed that this historic moment would have a tremendous impact on the lives of Hungarian Jews, my family, and myself."
Six years later, in March 1944, the German military invaded Hungary and occupied Budapest, its capital. Lantos, then 16, was arrested because he was Jewish and sent to a forced labor camp outside of Budapest. He escaped but was soon caught by the Germans and beaten severely, to be returned to the labor camp. He again escaped but this time made his way back to Budapest, 40 miles away. There, he hid with an aunt in a safe house set up by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat.
Lantos then joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement and was able to move around freely due to his having blond hair and blue eyes, which to the Nazis were physical signs of Aryanism. As a result, he acted as a courier for the underground movement and delivered food and medicine to Jews living in other safe houses, and where he met his future wife, Annette Tillemann. In January 1945, less than year later, Russian military forces fought door-to-door battles and liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation. However, Lantos, then 17, returned home only to discover that his mother and other family members had all been killed by the Germans, along with 450,000 other Hungarian Jews, during the preceding 10 months of their occupation. Wallenberg, for his part, was later credited with saving the lives of thousands of other Hungarian Jews.