When I first heard the shocking news about the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I immediately thought of my late father, Tom Lantos. He came to the United States as a young teenager after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust in his native Hungary. He had a deep and abiding love for America, a land of freedom that opened its doors to this young persecuted immigrant, and offered him a second chance at life. Dad went on to serve his beloved adopted country as the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. He was one of our nation’s most powerful advocates for human rights and justice.
I found myself wishing that Dad were still alive to lend his uniquely eloquent voice to our public discussion about this tragic event and the dangerous vein of violent anti-Semitism it has exposed. Then, upon further reflection, I realized that he had already left behind words that can absolutely help all of us through this difficult time.
My father’s most memorable quote is, “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.” These wise words reflect the sober reality that the freedom, tolerance, security, and rule of law that are the hallmarks of a civilized society can never be taken for granted. This is something my father understood from the sorrows of his own lived experiences. His words also make it clear that the responsibility for defending our sacred civilization rests with each of us. That is a bracing, but also empowering thought; one that we must take to heart. This moment is a challenge to each of us, but I know we can and must be equal to it.
Despite the suffering of his early life that gave my father a clear-eyed view of the world and the evil that exists in it, he somehow remained a man of profound optimism. Whenever I faced personal setbacks or despaired over a crisis in the life of our nation, he would say in his elegant Hungarian accent, “Don’t worry darling, we are just bending a windy corner of history and right around this corner are bright blue skies and wonderful possibilities.” If he could believe that after all he had experienced, then surely we can too.
Like all of us, my father would have been heartbroken and horrified by the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue. He would have mourned and honored the slain, condemned the hatred and evil that took their lives, and then he would have gotten right back to work guarding our shared civilization. That is exactly what I intend to do.
Katrina Lantos Swett