The plight of refugees is never far from Judge Thomas Buergenthal’s mind.
Having experienced by the age of 10 the insecurity of a stateless person, the bombs and bullets of the Luftwaffe, the penury of the ghetto, the brutality of a Nazi work camp and the disappearance of both his mother and father, how could life become any worse?
But it did. And let’s not forget the erasing of his identify and its replacement with a new one — B-2930 which was tattooed on his arm during the registration process at Auschwitz and which he still bears.
“Now I had a new name B-2930, and it was the only ‘name’ that mattered here,” he recalls in his biography, “A Lucky Child, A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy.”
“The number, now somewhat faded, is still there on my left arm. It remains a part of me and serves as a reminder, not so much of my past, but of the obligation I deem incumbent on me, as a witness and survivor of Auschwitz, to fight the ideologies of hate and of racial and religious superiority that have for centuries caused so much suffering to mankind.”
With World War II coming to an end and Soviet troops approaching, he was ordered to begin marching from Birkenau, one of the sub-camps near Auschwitz, with other children and the inmates who still lived to set off on what is known as the Auschwitz Death Transport to Sachsenhausen, yet another concentration camp.
“We were ordered to line up in front of the barrack with our blankets and other possessions. My possessions consisted of a thin blanket, a spoon and a metal container that served both as my cup and soup plate,” he writes.
“It was freezing, and a very strong wind was blowing through our clothes. As we stood there waiting, we were thrown a loaf of black bread. Then the order came “Vorwarts march!” (“Forward March”)
As fellow prisoners having died around him, some being shot in the head if they couldn’t keep up, he remembers: “At that point, what was happening around me had become routine; the SS would kill those who refused to continue and order some nearby marchers to push the dead into the closest ditch.”
At the invitation of Am Israel Chai, the nonprofit Holocaust Education and Awareness organization, Judge Buergenthal came to Atlanta on a bright and sunny, if somewhat chilly Jan. 24, for a “Courage and Compassion” event held that evening at the West Atlanta Perimeter North hotel in Sandy Springs.
Prior to the evening ceremony, the judge attended the planting of 2,000 daffodil bulbs at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The planting is part of a beautification project that already has been responsible for 110,000 daffodils being planted to create a “ribbon of consciousness” between the civil and human rights center and the King Center.
The yellow daffodils are symbols for the yellow Star of David patches that the Nazi authorities forced the Jews to wear. The Atlanta project supported by Central Atlanta Progress in conjunction with Am Israel Chai, is part of a worldwide effort to plant 1.5 million daffodils in memory of the 1.5 million children who died in Nazi occupied Europe.
The judge then toured the center where he was interviewed by Global Atlanta. As he walked into the hall where the full-size photographs of human rights villains including Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot are displayed, he remarked with a flash of recognition, “Oh there are the bad guys.”
As Europe experiences more refugees than any time since World War II, he told Global Atlanta that he cannot help but empathize with their plight. “We were running away from Czechoslovakia to Poland when the tanks came in. Of course, I see myself. I remember the fear and everything.”
Bearing an amazing tale of survival, he says that luck played a key role, but also credits the brilliant survival skills of his father for saving his life. One time at least, however, he was responsible for saving his life on his own.
Before being shipped to Auschwitz, his family was forced to stay in the Jewish ghetto of the Polish town of Kielce. When the ghetto was being dismantled, he and his two young cousins were to be separated from his parents so that they could be sent to Treblinka.
As he was being pulled away, he told the Nazi officer, “Captain, I can work,” which resulted in the release of the officer’s clutch. His cousins, however, were taken away and later killed along with 30 other children in a nearby cemetery as grenades were thrown into their midst.
Judge Buergenthal cited his ability to speak both German and Polish as important skills in his survival. Not only did he have to deal with Germans in the camps, but there also were Polish “kapos” who had been held prisoner but decided to cooperate with their captors.
The Syrians, Iraqis and others from the Middle East entering Europe would do well to learn the native tongues of wherever they are living, he said, as the quickest way to participate in the cultures of their new homes.
He had learned German from his German mother, and Polish from his father who spoke both Polish and German. But his journey into English was a challenge he mastered on his own and which enabled him to become one of the world’s leading international human rights law experts.
It’s not the law, however, which he cites in terms of instilling a reverence for human rights, but rather education. And as a case in point, he cites Germany’s experience following the war as his lead example.
“I’m always struck by what happened in Germany,” he said. “It’s now the most democratic country in Europe and some years ago it was a killer nation. The education in West Germany has been a tremendous factor.”
“You have to start early teaching tolerance,” he added. “And then it must continue through the grades, doing it differently as you go along.”
He has served as a judge at the International Court of Justice and as judge and president of the International American Court of Human Rights. He currently is the Lobinger Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence at the Georgia Washington University Law School.
After the war he was reunited with his mother and moved to her home town of Gottingen in Germany, where he began to learn English. He moved to the United States in 1951 spending a year and a half in New Jersey where he went to school, eventually attending Bethany College, a small college in West Virginia.
“I threw myself into American culture,” he said, adding that he taught himself to write in English by copying many of the books he was assigned as a student.
Following his graduation from Bethany College he attended New York University Law School, where he was a Root-Tilden Scholar, and received his LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees in International Law from Harvard University.
His long academic career includes service as Dean of Washington College of Law at American University and endowed professorships at the University of Texas and Emory University, where he was also the Director of the Human Rights Program of the Carter Center.
In 1989, he joined the faculty of the Georgia Washington Law School. In 2000, he was elected to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, The Netherlands, where he served for a decade. Judge Buergenthal returned to the George Washington Law School in the fall of 2010.
In the evening, other concentration camp survivors from Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Siberia, were recognized during a candle lighting ceremony.
During the ceremony, Rabbi David R. Blumenthal, professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University, welcomed Judge Buergenthal and cited him as an example to be followed for transforming “oppression into justice and darkness into light.” To see a video of the ceremony, click here.