I’m always intrigued by first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, is no exception. This is a unique story, others of this kind are not known to me. He was ten years old when he was finally liberated from Sachsenhausen in 1944. He survived over two years in the harsh conditions of these labor (concentration) camps as a child. Most children in those camps were collected upon arrival and killed in the gas chambers. He considers it nothing but luck that he and his father were witty enough to get around the fate that fell upon so many others of Thomas’ age. At the first camp, Thomas’ father was seen as a factory manager and stated that his son was useful. Thomas mustered the courage to let the commander of the camp know that he could work! In Birkenau, Thomas had several close calls as the infamous Dr. Mengele sought out children or special cases to perform ‘scientific experiments’. Thomas’ father taught him to line up for morning counts near the doors to the barracks and then sneak back in as soon as counts concluded, to avoid selection if possible. Thomas also spent time in Auschwitz before moving to his final camp in Sachsenhausen. During that final march, the cold took two of Thomas’ toes with frostbite. He spent a few weeks in the infirmary, scared to death as that is the most likely place for SS guards to round up people to exterminate. As he was nearly healed, bombs dropped in nearby Berlin and the camp was liberated.
While in the infirmary, a man known as Odd Nansen visited often. He shared candy and bits of food with Thomas, even bringing him some books to try to get him started with education as the war had taken that opportunity away. Later, during the reconstruction, Thomas was reunited with his mother after a year in a Polish orphanage (his father died with unknown circumstances in the camps). While he was with his mother, they told each other their many stories, reconnecting from all the time spent apart. Thomas mentioned in fondness of the kind man who had helped him in the infirmary and soon they came upon a news article about Odd Nansen from Norway. Thomas wrote Odd Nansen and reconnected with him, visited him in Norway, and was proud to learn that Odd Nansen had published his personal diaries from the camps, dedicated them to young Thomas. Thomas had become somewhat of a celebrity!
Buergenthal spoke of many friends and family he lost during the war. Many times in the book, he sadly stated that ‘I never saw or heard from him/her again.’
As he was reconnected with his mother, he wrote ‘I could be a child again.’ He spent years of his childhood thinking and surviving as an adult. He had no chance to play or let others take care of him. It was quite a relief to know that his mother was responsible for him again. A tutor was hired to help Thomas catch up with his peers and the man realized that academically Thomas was far behind, but in maturity, the camps had made him think and act much more like an adult. They had many adult conversations and discussions about the war, the strategies, the losses. At first, Thomas wished to have a mounted machine gun to shoot all the Germans he saw walking the streets, but after further reflection, he realized that would not accomplish anything. Like many other survivors, he found that a dedication to the improvement of human rights was a paramount cause as he had seen first-hand how low humans could go without help from others. As he wrote in the book “I began to think that it was important that individuals like Nansen and the rest of us who had been subjected to terrible suffering at the hands of the Germans treat them with humanity, not because we sought their gratitude or to show how generous in spirit we were, but simply because our experience should have taught us to empathize with human beings in need, regardless of who they were. At the same time, of course, I was convinced that those Germans who ordered or committed the crimes the Nazis were responsible for should be punished.”
Thomas Buergenthal left West Germany in 1951 to study law in the US. He became focused in human rights law and served as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, worked at the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland, and eventually served a ten year tenure as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he is currently a professor of international law and human rights at the George Washington University Law School.