A Lucky Child

GW Law Professor Thomas Buergenthal rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to become an architect of international human rights law.

The word “lucky” is rarely uttered in the same breath as Auschwitz. But GW Law Professor Thomas Buergenthal, one of the youngest survivors of the notorious concentration camp, indeed considers himself a lucky man.

Defying death countless times, he emerged from the horrors of the Holocaust at the age of 10 to become one of the world’s leading experts on international and human rights law. His remarkable story was the subject of a student-designed exhibit that opened in April at GW’s Gelman Library.

It is “only natural” that he opted to dedicate his life to preventing human rights abuses, says Professor Buergenthal, who returned to GW as an endowed professor in 2010 after serving for a decade as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“I grew up in the camps—I knew no other life—and my sole objective was to stay alive, from hour to hour, from day to day,” he explains in the preface to his powerful memoir, A Lucky Child, published in 2007. “It equipped me to be a better human rights lawyer, if only because I understood, not only intellectually but also emotionally, what it is like to be a victim of human rights violations. I could, after all, feel it in my bones.”

A Child of the Holocaust

By the time 10-year-old “Tommy” Buergenthal was sent to Auschwitz in August 1944, he already knew all the tricks of survival. On the run with his mother, Gerda, a German Jew, and father, Mundek, a Polish Jew, since the age of four, he had witnessed unimaginable atrocities in his young life. The nightmare began in 1938, when the local fascist party confiscated the Buergenthal family’s hotel in Lubochna, Czechoslovakia. They fled to Poland, where they eventually acquired prized visas to enter England as political refugees. On Sept. 1, 1939, the day they were scheduled to depart for England, Hitler invaded Poland. The Buergenthals boarded a train headed for the Balkans, but jumped off when German planes began dropping bombs overhead.

For the next several years, they were confined to the Jewish ghetto of Kielce, Poland, where residents suffered frequent Nazi raids and beatings. After the ghetto was liquidated in August 1942—and the majority of its 20,000 inhabitants massacred at Treblinka—the Buergenthals spent two years in labor camps before being deported to Auschwitz in August 1944.

“I was lucky to get into Auschwitz,” Professor Buergenthal reflected during a July interview in his GW office overlooking the Law School Quad. “Most people who arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau rail platform had to undergo a so-called selection,” he explains, “where the children, elderly, and invalids were taken directly to the gas chambers.” Incredibly, there was no selection process when his train pulled in because the SS officers assumed that since they were coming from a work camp, all the children had already been eliminated. “Had there been a selection, I would have been killed before ever making it into the camp.”

His memoir details the chilling experiences he endured, such as being assigned to a barracks so close to the gas chambers at Auschwitz that his sleep was frequently interrupted by screams and pleas for help. To cope, he would tell himself that it was only a nightmare. In another heartbreaking passage, he recounts how he was torn away from his father in October 1944 during one of the frequent “selections” the Nazis performed; that was the last time they saw each other.

Cheating death time and time again, he remained at Auschwitz until January 1945, when the Nazis—on the edge of defeat—evacuated the camp, forcing the “half-starved and dying” prisoners to endure a horrific three-day “death march” through the frozen Polish countryside. The march, he says, was worse than anything he could have imagined. “The roads were covered with snow and ice,” he recalls, “and those who could not go on…were shot by the SS guards, who kicked their bodies into a nearby ditch.”

One of three children to survive the march, he was next herded with other prisoners onto open freight cars, without food or water, for a frigid 10-day journey to Germany, and, ultimately, Sachsenhausen concentration camp. “As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, men, women and children standing on bridges threw us loaves of bread,” he says. “Had it not been for that Czech bread, we would have starved to death.” By the time he arrived at Sachsenhausen, he was suffering from such severe frostbite that two of his toes were amputated.

Finally, in April 1945, the camp was liberated by Polish and Russian troops and he was free. “A Polish army company took me with them as their ‘mascot’ because I had nowhere else to go,” he says. “They made me a small uniform and gave me a pair of shoes, a pistol, and a pony. I had a wonderful time with them, filled with adventures.”

Upon discovering that the 11-year-old was Jewish, one of the soldiers found a place for him at a Jewish orphanage, which, he says, served as “a halfway point from one life to another.” A year after arriving at the orphanage, he received the miraculous news that his mother was alive and had tracked him down. After nearly two and a half years apart, mother and son were reunited in December 1946 and settled in Goettinger, Germany, his mother’s hometown. His father, sadly, was executed by the Nazis at Buchenwald in the final days of the war.

“Somehow, I knew that she had survived and that she would find me,” he says. Gerda Buergenthal was equally certain that her son was alive, despite the fact that her friends tried to convince her there was no way such a young child could have survived Auschwitz. “She refused to give up hope,” Professor Buergenthal says.

One of the things that kept her going was the prediction of a fortuneteller she’d visited in Poland just before the war started. “She told my mother that terrible things would happen to our family, but that her son was a “lucky child” who would emerge unscathed from the future that awaited us.” Six decades later, that phrase became the title of his book.

Once the two were reunited, he turned his attention to making up for the many yeas of education he’d lost. “When I arrived at the orphanage, I did not know how to read or write,” he says. He was tutored privately for a year before beginning his formal education in seventh grade. “I always tell my daughters-in-law not to worry if the children miss a few days of school, because I lost seven years of school and it didn’t stop me from becoming a lawyer,” he says.

Protecting Human Rights Internationally

In 1951, at the age of 17, he set sail for America in search of greater academic opportunities. After finishing high school in New Jersey, where he lived with his uncle and aunt, he attended Bethany College in West Virginia on a full scholarship, graduating summa cum laude. He applied to law school “partly because my father had attended law school in Poland and partly because I realized I would never become a doctor or scientist,” he says.  After earning his JD at New York University Law School and LLM and SJD degrees in international law at Harvard Law School, he turned his attention to the fledgling field of international human rights law. “When I was a child, there was no such thing as international protection of human rights,” he says. “I have always believed that if some of today’s international organizations and laws were in place in the 1930s, we could have prevented many of the terrible things Hitler did from happening. I knew what it was to be a victim of human rights violations and wanted to work for a world in which the rights and dignity of human beings everywhere would be protected.”

One of the pioneering members of the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Justice, Professor Buergenthal took great pride in helping to lay the foundation for the groundbreaking Latin American human rights tribunal. “I look back on the court with special sentiment,” says Professor Buergenthal, who served for the maximum two terms and was the only U.S. judge ever to sit on the court. “It was a dream come true to help establish a new court dedicated to strengthening the protection of human rights. We all felt like John Marshall!”

With Professor Buergenthal at the helm as president, the court rendered a landmark decision in 1988—ordering the government of Honduras to compensate the families of “forced disappearance” victims kidnapped and murdered by government forces during that country’s civil war. “It was very satisfying work,” he says. “We had the sense that we had really achieved something.”

After Professor Buergenthal completed his service on the Inter-American Court, the secretary-general of the United Nations appointed him to the three-member United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, charged with investigating the massive human rights abuses committed during that country’s 12-year civil war. Memories of his past came pouring back as he “interviewed witnesses, heard their stories, and inspected the killing fields,” he says. “We interviewed the sole survivor of the El Mozote Massacre, in which 500 women and children were killed, and after the first few minutes of her testimony, I realized that I could have finished her story.”

Professor Buergenthal’s emotions were also stirred while serving as vice chairman of the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland in 1999 to 2000. The tribunal was established to identify the owners or heirs of unclaimed secret Holocaust-era Swiss bank accounts opened before the war by victims seeking to hide their assets. “I enjoyed helping to get the money into the hands of its rightful owners,” he says, noting that more than $1 billion was ultimately distributed to Holocaust survivors and victims’ heirs.

“A case I’ll never forget concerned a hidden account claimed by a man and woman in their 70s, one living in Poland and the other in Israel, who each contended that they were the sole survivor of their family,” he says. After investigating, the tribunal concluded that they were siblings who each believed that the other had perished in the Holocaust. Their excitement at the prospect of reuniting the brother and sister quickly turned to sorrow when they phoned the brother’s home and were told he had just passed away.

The capstone of Professor Buergenthal’s judicial career was serving from 2000 to 2010 as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The principal judicial organ of the United Nations with jurisdiction over disputes between states, the court determines “what is and what is not international law,” Professor Buergenthal says. “It is a dream court for international lawyers—comparable to serving on the Supreme Court of the United States.”

As much as he enjoyed his work on the court, he decided to return to academia in 2010, primarily because he and he his wife, Peggy, wanted to live closer to their children and nine grandchildren. “I could have served another five years on the court, but we wanted to enjoy our grandchildren and for them to know us,” he explains.

He was delighted to return to his former chair at GW Law as the Lobingier Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence. “I taught at GW for 10 years before my appointment to the International Court of Justice and liked it very much, so there was no reason to go anywhere else,” he says.

When he first joined GW Law in 1989, the now thriving international law program was in its infancy. “It is exciting to see how many professors are now teaching international law here,” he says. “There are very few law schools in the country that have as large an international law program as we do.”

Sean Murphy, GW’s Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor of Law, calls his longtime international law colleague a complete treasure. “I doubt most of our students know there is only one school in our entire country that boasts a full-time faculty member who is a former ICJ judge, and that school is in Foggy Bottom,” he says. “Tom has been a centerpiece of our international law program for more than two decades. Even before he served on the International Court of Justice, he brought into the classroom an enormous range of scholarly and practical achievement.

“Tom’s professional career is inseparable from the emergence after World War II of the new field of human rights law,” Professor Murphy adds. “He directly experienced its absence as a child; he helped build the system in the post-war years as a scholar, practitioner, and judge; and, as he approaches his retirement years, he can look with satisfaction on durable human rights structures—or at least strong scaffolding—in most parts of the world. There will always be more work to be done, but without people like Tom, we would still be in the Dark Ages.”

A quick scan of his résumé reveals many additional contributions to institutions around the globe. He served as the first U.S. envoy to the U.N. Human Rights Committee and as president of the administrative tribunal of the Inter-American Development Bank. He was the first permanent chairman of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He launched the international law program at American University’s Washington College of Law, where he served as dean from 1980 to 1985, and worked closely with former President Jimmy Carter as the director of the Human Rights Program at the Carter Center of Emory University from 1985 to 1989.

A prolific author, he has written more than a dozen books on international and human rights law, many of which are now staples in classrooms across the country. He co-authored the first American casebook on international human rights law, International Protection of Human Rights, with Louis B. Sohn, his professor and mentor at Harvard Law School who eventually joined him at GW. The pivotal text, published in 1973, introduced human rights law into the curricula of law schools nationwide.

Professor Buergenthal also co-authored the landmark books International Human Rights in a Nutshell, with Dinah Shelton and David Stewart, and Public International Law in a Nutshell, with Sean Murphy.

And since its publication in 2007, his Holocaust memoir, A Lucky Child, has moved audiences across the globe. Why did he wait nearly six decades to write it? “I always knew I was going to write the book, but it was a question of finding the time,” he explains. “I was busy raising a family, teaching, and working in the human rights field. Finally, one day I realized I wasn’t immortal and that I better get started, so I spent a summer in The Hague writing, and the book just flowed out of me.”

First published in Germany, A Lucky Child—which Professor Buergenthal wrote in English—has already been translated into 14 languages. “It has been published in all the major European countries, as well as Japan, Brazil, and Indonesia,” he says. Ironically, it took him two years to persuade an English-language publisher to sign on. “Publishers in both the United States and England told me that Holocaust books don’t sell,” he explains. He quickly proved them wrong. The German edition of the book earned a spot on Germany’s bestseller list for weeks and the English paperback edition has been reprinted 15 times. He is now working on a sequel to the book incorporating the wealth of material that has surfaced in recent years documenting his mother’s two-year search for him.

Early this year, when GW Professor Walter Reich approached him with the request to create a student-designed museum exhibit detailing his life for his Holocaust Memory course, Professor Buergenthal responded with an enthusiastic yes. “I was tremendously impressed with the idea; it’s a wonderful pedagogic method,” he says.

The exhibit, which ran from April to October, filled four glass display cases on the top floor of GW’s Gelman Library. “It’s a little strange to see yourself exhibited and even stranger to realize that you are one of the few survivors still alive,” Professor Buergenthal says. “But it’s a great way of bringing to life for the students what the Holocaust was like for my family and me, and I was extremely impressed by what they produced.”

Creating the exhibit was a “real high point” for his international affairs students, says Professor Reich, who serves as GW’s Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior and is a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum. “The exhibit itself allowed them to document his life within the context of the murder of the Jews of Europe by a power that represented the antithesis of justice and humanity. And it allowed them to show how he was able to focus his life, his teaching, his writing, and his judicial efforts to create a better world—one that could better protect humanity, society, decency, and the finest values of civilization.”

“It was an honor for all of us that Professor Buergenthal gave unstintingly of his time, efforts, and passion to help the students understand the darkest—and brightest—possibilities of humanity,” Professor Reich adds. “He’s a rare treasure for GW and the world.”

by Jamie L. Freedman