February 16, 1945:  Nansen Meets Buergenthal

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Odd Nansen, visiting a sick Norwegian friend in Revier [infirmary] III, Sachsenhausen, happened upon a young Jewish boy recovering from an operation. Nansen’s description of the meeting was terse, only one paragraph long:

         He comes from Auschwitz. His legs were frostbitten and several toes have been  amputated. At Auschwitz he was an errand boy in the crematorium. He relates among other things that the most they could take in the gas-chamber at a time was two thousand, and then they used two boxes [of Zyklon B], he said. “But how do you know that?” someone asked him. “Why, because I got the boxes,” said the child.

Nansen’s interaction with young Tommy takes up only six diary entries, spanning less than one month of Nansen’s nearly forty-month incarceration. Yet it becomes clear from these entries that Buergenthal touched Nansen in a way that almost nothing and no one else could, and forms a pivotal relationship for him. In his final diary entry dealing with Tommy, Nansen wrote:

       Poor, lovable, splendid little Tommy! It was such a wrench to say goodbye—worse than anything in all your “old uncle’s” prison life. For the very first time he saw you, you went straight to his heart. But that was something you didn’t realize, and I’m glad.

Nansen was even more explicit in a work he later wrote about Buergenthal. In Tommy: En sannferdig fortelling fortalt [Tommy: A True Story Told] published in Norway in 1970, Nansen confessed:

          [Tommy] touched something in us which was about to disappear. He called to life again human feelings, which were painful to have, but which nevertheless meant salvation for us all.

Thus it is not surprising that Nansen dedicated From Day to Day in part to “young Tommy” without knowing whether Buergenthal had even survived the war. (Nansen was evacuated to Neuengamme concentration camp on March 20, 1945 by the Swedish Red Cross as part of the “white buses” operation, and from there to Denmark, Sweden, and ultimately freedom; Buergenthal was liberated from Sachsenhausen on April 22, 1945 by Polish troops, eventually made it to an orphanage in Otwock, Poland before being reunited with his mother in Germany in December 1946.)

Nor is it surprising that for Tom Buergenthal, “more than anyone else [Odd Nansen] was responsible for my choosing to embark on this career path [of human rights work],” a path which ultimately led to Tom’s appointment as a justice to the International Court of Justice at The Hague (2000-2010), and receipt of many awards and accolades, including the 2015 Elie Wiesel Award from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Nansen and Buergenthal remained life-long friends, visiting each other in the U.S. and Norway as their busy schedules allowed.

And it all began 71 years ago today.

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