He survived Auschwitz, now he judges mass murderers

Thomas Buergenthal is a top UN human rights lawyer whose childhood experience of Nazi persecution has defined his career.


One day in 1943, the Nazis liquidated the Kielce labour camp in the heart of Poland. The inhabitants were made to stand in two columns while the German commandant led his soldiers between them to take the children away from their parents. When those parents tried to hold on to their children, literally for dear life, they were brutally beaten.

Amid this infernal drama, the father of one nine-year-old boy marched his son up to the commandant, to whom the boy declared: “Herr Hauptmann, ich kann arbeiten (Captain, I can work).”

Whether it was because this “Polish” Jewish boy (who was actually born in Czechoslovakia) spoke German, or for some other reason, the commandant sent father and son back to the column. The 30 or so other children were taken to the nearby Jewish cemetery, where they were killed by German soldiers.

Tom, the boy who had been reprieved, was subsequently separated from his parents and, over the next three years, experienced fear, starvation and cruelty, not least as a prisoner both in Auschwitz and on the notorious “death march” out of the camp, ending up in an orphanage among hardened young people whose parents had been murdered.

It is easy to imagine the kind of adult likely to emerge from such a boyhood: understandably resentful, antisocial, unbalanced possibly, possessing a cruel, even criminal streak of his own. But there could hardly be a more inaccurate picture of how Tom turned out.

Though his father did perish, he was reunited with his mother after the war, and eventually made his way to America. Today, Thomas Buergenthal is one of the world’s leading lawyers, a judge at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague. And the sentiments expressed by this thoughtful, well-groomed man of 74 are not those of bitterness or revenge. His profoundest wish, he says, is to see the end of “the cycle of hatred and violence”.

Buergenthal’s career has undeniably been shaped by his wartime experiences. “When I was a student at Harvard,” he recalls, “I saw a lot of writing about the European convention on human rights and was curious to investigate it… Somehow my experience gave me a certain empathy… What if these [human rights] institutions had existed in the 1930s?”

Six decades on, he has written A Lucky Child — a book about that dark, defining period of his life. As he talks about it, seated in a smart London hotel, the book’s content seems a world away. In fact, he might have arrived in Britain before any of the horrors befell him. In 1939, his parents received visas to travel here. They were due to leave Katowice in Poland on September 1. Then, as he puts it in A Lucky Child, “Hitler decided to invade…”

This was one of a number of shattered hopes experienced by Buergenthal’s parents and chronicled in his book. However, for their only child it was different: “For me, this was just another event. That was how life was. This outlook saved my mental health.”

He displays a similar equanimity about another devastating aspect of his early life — the finality of so many partings from companions, friends and family, frequently because they were murdered. Its effects continued into his post-war existence: “The kids I was with on the death march — I don’t know what happened to them. I don’t remember their names. I simply started another life. Much of my life is moving from one state to another, leaving things behind. I generally haven’t maintained friends from one situation to another.”

Writing about these events so many years after they happened lends his account a level of mature objectivity, though he does worry about the accuracy of some of the details — “I was young, so you never know if this or that is something my parents told me, something I learned later, or something I really experienced.”

As an example, he cites a scene in which he and his fellow Auschwitz evacuees riding on an open rail-transport pass under a series of bridges in Czechoslovakia, from which kindly locals throw down loaves of bread. “It was quite an effort for me to convince myself that it actually happened. One knows as a lawyer that recollections are dangerous.” What the intervening years have brought him are deep reflections on the varying shades of human nature — demonstrated by the German civilians who spat at helpless Jewish prisoners and, by contrast, in the small acts of kindness performed by German soldiers. “Writing the book produced lots of questions and very few answers. It surprises me that so few people retained some sort of human kindness. Was it that they were afraid for their careers? That they would be vulnerable if seen as friends of Jews?”

One particularly memorable event that he witnessed was the execution of a group of slave labourers who had attempted to escape from their factory complex. They were brought to a specially constructed gallows where other inmates were forced by the Gestapo to be their executioners. As one of the latter, visibly shaking, approached a condemned colleague to place his head in the noose, the victim kissed his involuntary killer’s hand, and the other condemned men all refused to plead for their lives.

This “moral resistance”, Buergenthal argues, has been seriously undervalued. “We suffered a great injustice after the war when we were told that we didn’t resist. This didn’t take into account the tremendous moral courage that people displayed. My father could have organised physical resistance. It wasn’t difficult to get weapons in the ghetto; he had a contact with the Polish resistance. You have to make a decision — kill one German and have 20 Jews executed? And people who took the place of others in the gas chambers showed moral courage without raising those issues. I think we need to look again at what it meant to resist physically and how much moral resistance there was. I think this moral courage, in terms of education of the young — in terms of Judaism — has been underestimated.”

In the early 1990s, Buergenthal was a member of the three-man UN truth commission set up in the wake of the civil war in El Salvador. It stirred painful memories and, again, concentrated his mind on how the world might guard itself against atrocity.

“After my own experience, I thought that there was nothing I could see that would horrify me. This was not true. It was a great mistake at Nuremberg not to have augmented the proceedings with a truth commission. Only a snippet of the truth emerged. We still don’t know how the Germans were able to do what they did — and why.”

In the South African version, half a century later, “truth” was harnessed to “reconciliation”. But can the Germans be forgiven?

“I could not forgive the people who killed my father — if I knew who they were,” he says. “But when you talk about the Germans as a whole, I think forgiving — not forgetting — is important if we ever want a world in which these things are not repeated.”

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