Thomas Buergenthal saw things that no 11-year-old boy should ever have to see. He saw innocent men hung from a gallows. He saw stragglers shot on a death march. He saw people selected to die in gas chambers.
At age 11, Buergenthal became one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland. He was separated from his father there and never saw him again. Only through a “miracle” was he reunited with his mother after the war.
His story is exceptional. Most children sent to Auschwitz were immediately put to death.
Not Buergenthal. He came to America, graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia, finished law school and embarked on a legal career that culminated with his 10 years as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Now, the 76-year-old retired judge and current professor of law at the George Washington University, has written a memoir titled, “A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy.” He will recount his experiences in a program Friday at Temple Shalom, Wheeling, W.Va.
“I knew I was going to write it; I knew I had to write it,” Buergenthal said of his book. “The problem was there were so many other things in between, I just didn’t get to it … One day, I realized I wasn’t immortal and if I didn’t do it soon, who knows when I would write it.”
In retrospect, he said, waiting so long to write his story may have been a wise decision.
“I think the book is not as gruesome as it would have been,” had he written it sooner, “which might get more people to read it.”
Born May 11, 1934, in Lubochna, Czechoslovakia, where his parents settled after fleeing Nazi Germany, Buergenthal’s Holocaust ordeal began at the tender age of 5 when the family fled to Poland. They secured visas for England and were to leave on Sept. 1, 1939, but that day the Nazis invaded Poland, and their train was bombed.
They found themselves in the Jewish ghetto of Kielce and then in a nearby labor camp. The family was deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
In 1945, with the Soviet Red Army advancing, survivors were sent out on a three-day death march. Buergenthal and two other boys were the only children to survive it.
Buergenthal credited his mother for the direction his post-war life took. Before they were reunited in Germany in 1946, he was supposed to go Israel with other Jewish orphans.
“I was in an orphanage and from there, instead of finding my mother, I would have gone to Israel; who knows where I would have ended up,” the judge said. “When I reunited with my mother she immediately made sure I got the education I needed; it was understood I would go to college and get what I needed.”
While becoming a judge had nothing to do with his Holocaust experiences, he said, the area of law in which he specialized had everything to do with it.
“It was quite natural I would end up doing what I’m doing in the human rights field and international law,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to become a real estate lawyer.”
Once on the court, though, his background served him well.
“If you experience what I experienced, you have a much better sense of what it means to be a victim,” Buergenthal said. “In some ways, I had an advantage in dealing with human rights cases, in judging human rights cases for that matter.”
While on the court, Buergenthal distinguished himself as the lone dissenter in the 2004 Wall case in which the court ruled Israel’s security barrier was “contrary to international law.”
Buergenthal believed the court didn’t have enough information to rule on the case and he thought it might be possible to justify segments of the wall for reasons of self-defense. Still, he said he was criticized for his dissent.
He recalled in his book a grisly moment in a labor camp when prisoners were made to watch the hanging of fellow inmates who were caught while trying to escape. For each condemned man, the Germans made another prisoner slip the noose around his neck.
One prisoner simply couldn’t do it; the condemned man kissed is hand and slipped the noose around his own neck. That enraged a German officer so much he kicked the chair out from under the prisoner himself.
“It was obvious to us that the valor of the condemned man had robbed the German officer of the pleasure he must have expected to derive from his death,” Buergenthal wrote. “The dignity and humanity the young prisoner demonstrated moments before his death — and the disdainful refusal of other condemned men to plead for their lives — no doubt served over time to reinforce my conviction that moral resistance in the face of evil is no less courageous than physical resistance, a point that has unfortunately been frequently lost in the debate over the lack of greater Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.”
He still feels that way.
“The real courage so many people showed in the camps influenced me tremendously to this day; it’s more important than getting yourself shot. It took more courage to do good things with dignity to use dignity to show the world who we are I’ve always felt very strongly about that and I always felt that was lost.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)