Posts tagged Thomas Buergenthal

Thomas Buergenthal: Track Star?

Share

Those of you who have attended my presentations on From Day to Day know of the spectacularly successful career enjoyed by Thomas Buergenthal: Justice, International Court of Justice at The Hague; Judge, Inter-American Court of Human Rights; United Nations Human Rights Committee; United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador; Dean, Washington College of Law, American University; Elie Wiesel Award, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (the Museum’s highest honor).

Did you also know he was once a track star?

I have written (here, here, here and here) about the role of serendipity/coincidence in my journey with Odd Nansen’s diary.  Recently, while on a book tour, I gave a presentation in Somerset, NJ.  In the middle of my talk a gentleman in the rear of the audience stood and raised his hand.  I asked if he could hold his question until the end of my talk, when I would be happy to entertain it.  When my talk ended, I saw the hand go up again and immediately called upon him.

The gentleman did not have a question at all, but rather some information to share: he had attended the same high school in the early 1950s as Tom Buergenthal—Paterson East High School.  In fact, the two were classmates together.

Dr. Don Zimmerman, a retired dentist, then offered to retrieve his old high school yearbook.  Sure enough, there was Don’s picture in the yearbook—the Senior Mirror 1953—along with Tom’s.

Don Zimmerman, Then

And Now

As can be seen, each photo was accompanied by a short write-up, containing answers that each student must have been asked to complete.  The first, undoubtedly, was: “What do you want to do after leaving Paterson High School?”  Tom certainly fulfilled his goal: “To be a lawyer and travel.”  Another of the questionnaire’s inquiries must have been: “What is your pet peeve?”  Tom’s simple answer: “Questionnaires.”  We also learn that Tom was “well-liked” and “from Germany.”  Here’s Tom’s graduation photo.  Pay particular attention to the final entry in his write-up—none other than “From Day to Day.

Tom’s Yearbook Photo

In our post-presentation conversation, Don Zimmerman also remembered being on the track team with Tom.  When I later called Tom to relay my meeting with an old classmate, I asked him about his track experience.  Yes, Tom admitted, he was on the school’s track team for a bit—as a sprinter no less—but soon realized that there were other more talented runners in the student body.

Nevertheless, he admitted, he did once win third place—in the 100-yard dash—in a school track meet.

Then Tom chuckled, and rather wryly observed, “Imagine what I might have been able to do if I had had all my toes.”

The parallel lives of Thomas Buergenthal and Anne Frank

Share

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.

Anne Frank

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.

Subscribe to My Blog

Get an email notice when a new blog post is published.

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • January 23, 2020: Shalom Club/Carolina Preserve, Cary, NC
  • January 30, 2020: Kiawah World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • January 31, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • February 25, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Duke University, Durham, NC
  • March 25, 2020: Illinois Holocaust Museum, Skokie, IL
  • April 26, 2020: Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago, IL
  • April 27, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • April 28, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • May 7, 2020: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 28, 2020: Augsburg Lutheran, Baltimore, MD
  • May 29-31, 2020: Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 2, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • June 3, 2020: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • June 7, 2020: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ

People are talking


"A thousand thanks for your most wonderful lecture on your beautiful and informative book. What a labor of love you have undertaken for the world. . . . I still regard the lecture as one of the most perfect I have ever heard, and since I became 84 in the past week, that amounts to many thousands, mostly in an academic atmosphere."

- Nan Bentley Director, Wednesday Forum University Unitarian Church Seattle, WA

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2019 >
December
SMTWHFS
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031    
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history