" [Thomas Buergenthal's] plainspoken autobiography demonstrates that it is still possible for a Holocaust memoir to astonish." from a review by Nora Krug in the Washington Post on October 10, 2010
Thomas Buergenthal, currently American Judge in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, has written a moving memoir about his childhood. Buergenthal was born in 1934 to parents who each had left Germany because of the rise of Hitler and met and married in Lobochna, a resort town, in what was then Czechoslovakia. The family ended up trying to outrun Hitler, but did not succeed. When Czechoslovakia was invaded, they fled to Katowice in Poland which had a large German Jewish refugee population. There they expected to procure exit visas to England but before they could get out, Poland was invaded and they were on the run again. They spent four years in the Kielce ghetto in Poland, and when it was liquidated they ended up in Auschwitz.
A family of three up until then, they were now split up and Thomas Buergenthal, only ten years old, had to fend for himself. Despite his tumultuous childhood and the cruelty and deprivation he experienced, Buergenthal was a “lucky child” in many ways. He was street smart and kept his wits about him. He was blond and spoke German. He had adults in the various camps, even some Germans, who took a liking to him and protected him. And, considering that the odds were stacked against his survival, he frequently just happened to be in the right place at the right time and avoided annihilation.
His survival, in fact, was astounding. He was part of the death march from Auschwitz as was Elie Wiesel (separate post); after walking for days, those who survived were then packed into cattle cars and transported for days until they got to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany. There he entered the infirmary where two toes were cut off because of damage from frostbite.
Shortly after the war was over he became a resident of a Jewish Orphanage in Otwock, and 1 ½ years after the war ended he was reunited with his mother who had moved back to Gottingen, Germany, her home town and had been searching for him ever since she had been liberated. The story of their being reunited includes the suspense of fiction. It involved many agencies including the American Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency, and Bricha, and was aided by many people including Thomas Buergenthal’s mother’s brother Eric who lived in Patterson, New Jersey. To get Buergenthal from Poland to Germany across borders without the right papers a circuitous trip was devised where he was taken from border to border and handed over at each border to a different courier who would take him on the next part of his journey.
In a Preface Buergenthal explains that he is writing this memoir for his children and grandchildren who have never heard the whole story of his childhood and for those in the wider world who tend to reduce the Holocaust to a “neat” number of victims which he feels denies those victims their humanity. He feels it is important for eye witnesses to continue to publish their stories.
Buergenthal also includes an Epilogue about his work as a human rights lawyer. He is sure that his experience of human rights abuse prompted him to specialize in that area of the law. He wants to continue to work to prevent what happened to him from happening to anyone else. He is convinced that we must be ever vigilant and fight against genocide. He knows that after the war he wanted to kill Germans but that eventually those feelings disipated. He understood that killing Germans would not bring back Jewish victims. He continues to ponder the question: Why do people hate?
This memoir includes a Foreward by Elie Wiesel, a war-time map that includes the towns and concentration camps important in this memoir, and photos of family members and places associated with the family.
To watch a very interesting video of an interview with Thomas Buergenthal talking about the writing of this memoir which includes photos of his family and scenes from the Holocaust, click here.
To read a 2/18/11 New York Times article on current thoughts about the need for new kinds of exhibitions at Auschwitz written by Michael Kimmelman, click here.
Paul Silbergleit - married Rosa Blum
Gerda – daughter of Paul and Rosa; married Mundek Buergenthal; 2nd husband Leon Reitter; 3rd husband Jacob (Jack) Rosenholz
Thomas Buergenthal – son of Gerta and Mundek; married to Peggy; author
Eric Silberg (Silbergleit) – son of Paul and Rosa; married to Senta
Gay – daughter of Eric and Senda
Freda Cohen Koren
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Germany
Patterson, New Jersey