Seventy-five years ago today (August 2, 1944), Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz, the largest and most lethal concentration camp the Nazis ever built, and the symbolic heart of the Holocaust. Tom was immediately separated from his mother Gerda—thereafter he was to see her only once, through the wire, before she was transported to Ravensbrück, and they were not to be reunited until December 1946. Buergenthal lived in Auschwitz for a time with his father Mundek until he, too, was transported—first to Sachsenhausen (there is no record that he ever crossed paths with Odd Nansen) and then to Buchenwald, where he succumbed to pneumonia in January 1945.
Tom Buergenthal with his parents
There are a number of striking parallels between the lives of Tom Buergenthal and Anne Frank
It was two days after Tom’s arrival at Auschwitz (August 4, 1944) that Anne, age 15, was arrested along with her family and four others who had been in hiding for over two years in Amsterdam.
Although Anne lived most of her childhood in Holland and Tom in Czechoslovakia, Anne’s parents and Tom’s mother were all German, all (along with Tom’s father, born in Galicia) having fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Within a month of Anne’s arrest, she was also transported to Auschwitz, arriving September 3, 1944. Upon arrival, she was separated from her father. Again, there is no knowing if Tom and Anne were ever even close to each other in the sprawling camp that held more than 150,000 prisoners at its height. What we do know is that Anne contracted scabies in Auschwitz, and Tom, having been selected for the gas chamber, was temporarily housed with others in a barracks for prisoners with scabies until a sufficiently large group could be assembled for the crematorium. (Miraculously, he survived this experience, another instance when he would prove to be “ein Glückskind,” a lucky child.)
In late October or early November, 1944, around the time Tom lost his father to the transports, Anne, along with her older sister Margot, was also transported, to the Bergen-Belsen camp, located approximately 40 miles south of Hamburg. Bergen-Belsen was unsanitary and overcrowded, subject to epidemics of infectious diseases like typhus and typhoid fever. When Auschwitz was finally evacuated in late January, 1945, Tom was among the 60,000 or so prisoners involved in the infamous Death March. In late February or early March, 1945, around the time Buergenthal and Odd Nansen were first meeting each other in the infirmary in Sachsenhausen, Anne died in Bergen-Belsen. The exact date and exact cause of death will never be known.
Recently I addressed the students of my high school alma mater, and posed the counterfactual question: What if Odd Nansen had been in Bergen-Belsen instead of Sachsenhausen, and had met Anne Frank instead of Tom Buergenthal? Or, conversely, what if Anne Frank had been sent to Sachsenhausen, and Tom sent to Bergen-Belsen instead? Could Odd Nansen have saved Anne Frank’s life the way he saved Tom’s? Would Tom have been able to survive in Bergen-Belsen?
Certainly there were factors that helped Tom, not the least being the fact that, having lived first in a Jewish ghetto in Kielce, and then in various work camps before arriving in Auschwitz, meant that he had “a relatively long period of survival training. Who knows whether I would have survived had I arrived in Auschwitz from a normal middle-class environment and immediately had to face brutal camp conditions.” Anne, on the other hand, was spared Tom’s “gradual immersion into hell.”
But the key difference, I believe, was Odd Nansen. Tom writes: “I realized that Mr. Nansen had probably saved my life [in Sachsenhausen’s infirmary, where Tom was convalescing following amputation of frostbitten several toes] by periodically bribing the orderly in charge of our barracks . . . to keep my name off the list of ‘terminally ill’ patients, which the SS guards demanded every few weeks ‘to make room for other prisoners.’”
Anne had no such person in Bergen-Belsen to help her through her crucible. Had she survived, we might have celebrated her 90th birthday this past June 12. Anne was bright, perceptive, and an extremely talented writer. What more might she have accomplished during her lifetime? We’ll never know. On the other hand, we do know that Tom Buergenthal had a wonderfully productive career promoting human rights, a career that culminated as a judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague (2000—2010).
Buergenthal at the International Court of Justice at The Hague
If nothing else, Odd Nansen’s life shows us how just one humane person can help in tikkun olam–repairing the world.