Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Book Review

A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz
as a Young Boy

by Thomas Buergenthal

Forward by Elie Wiesel

Children liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945

Recently had the great good fortune, really a blessing, to just happen upon a radio interview of Thomas Buergenthal, former judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, now serving on the bench of the Central American International Court. He spoke mainly of his work concerning international law, his judicial philosophy and his very impressive case experience. But he also spoke about this book, the expression of his childhood memories of of fleeing Nazi terror, entering the concentration camp of Auschwitz with his parents, being separated from them and how he survived the death camp as a truly "lucky child." I was most impressed with his moderate and compassionate tone, remarkably free of bitterness or hatred and the utter miracle of his survival.

Thomas Buergenthal, born to German-Jewish parents living in Czecchoslovakia, grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Kielce, Poland. He was sent to Auschwitz in August, 1944. As Russian troops approached in 1945, he was among those force-marched for days in freezing weather to the camp of Sachsenhausen from which he was liberated in the spring of 1945. He was eleven years old and did not know whether his parents were dead or alive. Over a year later he was miraculously reunited with his mother. In 1951 he emigrated to the United States where he studied at Bethany College in West Virginia graduating in 1957, received his J.D. at New York University in 1960, and his LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees in international law from Harvard Law School.

Justice Buergenthal has served as a judge for many years, including lengthy periods on various specialized international organization bodies. Between 1979 and 1991, he served as a judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, including a stint as that court's president; from 1989 to 1994, he was a judge on the Inter-American Development Bank's Administrative Tribunal; in 1992 and 1993, he served on the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador; and from 1995 to 1999, he was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Justice Buergenthal wrote:

...I was drawn to international law and human rights law...because I believed...that these areas of the law, if developed and strengthened, could spare future generations the type of terribly human tragedies that Nazi Germany had visited on the world...Over time I also gradually concluded that I had an obligation to devote my professional activities to the international protection of human rights. This sense of obligation had its source in the belief, which grew stronger as the years passed, that those of us who had survived the Holocaust owe it to those who perished to try to improve, each in our own way, the lives of others.

He concludes:

Today it is...easier that it was in the 1930s to arouse the international community to act. That does not mean that such action will always be forthcoming. But it does mean that we now have better tools that we had in the past to stop massive violations of human rights. The task ahead is to strengthen these tools, not to despair, and to never believe that mankind is incapable of creating a world in which our grandchildren and their descendants can live in peace and enjoy the human right that were denied to so many of my generation.

Hearing Justice Buergenthal speak and reading his memoir were gift and inspiration.

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