Thomas Buergenthal, the American judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague, is a scholar in the post-Holocaust field of international law and human rights. He is also a child survivor of Nazi labor and concentration camps.
Born in Czechoslavakia, the son of German and Polish Jews, five-year-old “Tommy” fled with his parents to Poland in 1939. When the ghetto at Kielce was liquidated in August 1942, he was the only child able to stay with his parents in the labor camp at Henryków. “What prompted the city commandant to spare my life on that morning has remained a mystery to me,” he writes. “Was it that I was blond and spoke fluent German and possibly reminded him of his own children? I shall never know.”
This unusual memoir has a quiet and reflective tone, partly because he is still puzzling out his extraordinary luck. People are often shocked when he says he was lucky to get into the camp at Auschwitz, where he was sent in August 1944. He quickly explains that his group was spared the lethal selection process at the Birkenau rail platform because the SS officers probably assumed that, coming from a labor camp, there were no children in the transport.
Buergenthal considers himself lucky because at every stage of his journey he found people who tried to protect him. In the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, he befriended a Norwegian inmate named Odd Nansen, the subsequent founder of UNICEF. And upon liberation, a Polish division of the Soviet army adopted Tommy as their mascot and took him back to Poland, beginning the process by which he found his mother, who also survived.
After the war, he and his mother settled in his mother’s former hometown of Göttingen, Germany. There Buergenthal recalls confronting the full force of his feelings: “As I contemplated scenes of happy Germans enjoying their lives as if nothing had happened in the recent past, I longed to have a machine gun mounted on the balcony so I could do to them what they had done to my family,” he recalls. “It took me a long time to get over these sentiments and to recognize that such indiscriminate acts of vengeance would not bring my father or grandparents back to life.” Buergenthal’s revealing self-portrait provides insight into a career devoted to the international defense of human rights.
Bonny V. Fetterman is the literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.