by Lou Mancinelli
Stories abound as to how some Jewish Europeans from invaded countries managed to survive World War II and the Holocaust. For Erdenheim resident Peter Lantos, 87, a retired doctor of chemical engineering, who served the plastics and chemicals industries from the research and design end to executive to consulting company owner for over 55 years, it was a summer sojourn his family took to America, where his father was required to travel for business, that saved their lives.
But Lantos, who served his adopted country in war so that he could become a citizen, is disgusted with the current state of politics. Lantos’ memory is as sharp as a 24-year-old’s, and his voice is strong. He fires off dates from his past as if he has an internet-fast assistant tracking the information. His letters to the editor are often published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. One has been published in Time Magazine.
This year, his published Inquirer letters have been about his concerns about Michael Vick after a playoff loss to the Packers, his disgust with Gov. Corbett’s balanced budget at the expense of programs for the poor, government workers and education; and another expressing his opinion that his country “has become the land of the rich and the powerful and, above all, of businesses, as attempts are made to cure the economy at the expense of the poor, the elderly and the ill.”
In May of 1939, his family sailed to America out of Genoa aboard the Conte Di Savoia, an Italian liner that was once known for making the fastest trip across the Atlantic. They arrived in New York and stayed in Princeton, N.J., where Lantos’ uncle, Dr. Eugene Wigner, a professor of mathematical physics at Princeton University, lived.
The family planned to return to their home in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 3, 1939. But on Sept. 1, German troops crossed into Poland and eventually into almost every other country in Europe. As a result, the Lantos family was here for good. Peter became a sophomore at Princeton High School, where he learned from other students about things he never heard of in Hungary like baseball, football, badminton, bridge and dominoes.
And life in Princeton, one can imagine, was a hub of intelligence. Lantos’ uncle would later go on to work on the Manhattan Project in 1942, the initiative that developed the Atom Bomb, until the war concluded in 1945. In 1963, Dr. Wigner was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics.
“I can’t say I came to the U.S. looking for greater opportunity and a better life,” said Lantos during an early August interview. “Fate dealt me a good hand in that sense. Additionally, I got a better education because teachers here cared more. That, and I was in class with girls. In Hungary, boys and girls were separated at school.”
In Budapest, the family lived a comfortable life. His father was a business executive of one of Europe’s first conglomerates. “In retrospect,” said Lantos, “I realized what a huge change it was for my parents.”
As non-citizens during war-time America, it was difficult for them to find work. Peter’s father eventually became a farmer, as a result, and his mother, a former housewife with maids and a cook, now tended to the chickens and domestic affairs.
“They never had any complaints,” said Lantos. His family most likely would not have survived in Hungary. At the start of the war, Hungary was part of the Axis. By 1944, the Nazis had invaded and destroyed Budapest, but even as early as 1941, Hungarian-Jews (Lantos’ mother was Jewish) had been handed over to the Nazis and eventually into forced labor and extermination camps.
After the war, an end reached in part due to the scientific discoveries of Lantos’ uncle, Lantos finished high school. He volunteered for the Navy’s radar program but was denied admission because he was not a U.S. citizen. He went on to study chemical engineering at Cornell University. After graduation from Cornell, he was drafted into the Army.
“I was patriotic,” said Lantos. “I wanted to do my part for the country. I could have said I was not a citizen, but then I would have never become a citizen.”
Three months into basic training, he was taken with a number of other cadets to Richmond, Virginia, and naturalized. During the remainder of World War II, Lantos served in Utah at the Dugwag Proving Ground researching chemical warfare like poison gas and incendiary bombs.
After the war, Lantos went back to Cornell, where he earned his Ph.D in chemical engineering in 1950. Through the decades he worked for General Electric, DuPont, Celanese, Sun Chemical and Rhodia, rising from the research and design positions he held early in his career, to the executive position he held at the Atlantic Ridgefield Company (ARCO) in Philadelphia in the late 1970s.
Then, in 1979, his life made a U-turn. Within a two-year period, Lantos was laid-off from ARCO, divorced his first wife and shortly after that met his new wife-to-be. He then started The Target Group, his own chemical and plastics industries consulting firm, until he retired in 2008.
“My new wife made a fantastic change in my life,” said Lantos. “She taught me to be more people-oriented and less demanding. She made a better person and executive out of me.”
By late 1979, Lantos and his new wife, Sandy, settled in Erdenheim. (A retired school counselor, Sandy worked at the Jenks Elementary School in Chestnut Hill for 25 years.) He ran the Target Group from home. His work with his consulting firm took him around the world. In 1994, Lantos had the opportunity to testify as an expert witness in a case involving the National Travel Safety Board (NTSB). NTSB officials concluded that a single-engine plane crashed due to a failure of the plastics in the fuel valve. But Lantos provided testimony that proved scientifically there was no way the plastics could have failed. When the case was examined more closely, it was determined that the pilot ran out of gas.
These days, Lantos spends much of his time writing. In 2005 he published a book, “Careers in Consulting” (The Graduate Group, Connecticut). He is also looking for a publisher for his book, “Government of the People, By the People, For the People?” In that book he contends that “a government for the people” is far from how today’s government operates. “It’s not the people we elect who really run the government,” he insisted. “It’s done behind the scenes by unelected lobbyists and entities like the military/industrial complex.
“I feel ordinary citizens, the taxpayers, are powerless … Right now is a perfect example. Seventy-five per cent of the voters are in favor of eliminating tax inequities, but our congressmen oppose this as one approach to debt reduction.”