By 1943, nine-year-old Tom Buergenthal had spent most of his childhood on the run, only a few steps ahead of the Nazis.
Buergenthal was born in Lubochna, Czechoslovakia. His parents, who ran a hotel, had fled Germany after Hitler came to power. On the day World War II started, the family boarded a train that was to take them from Poland to Britain. The train was bombed, and the Buergenthals walked to a Polish city called Kielce, where they lived out the first years of the war in the Jewish ghetto.
After the Germans liquidated the ghetto in 1942 and sent most of the 25,000 inhabitants—including Tom’s grandparents—to their death at Treblinka, he and his parents ended up in a labor camp. One day, the Germans began to round up the children. When a soldier tried to grab Tom, his father bellowed, “Let’s speak to the commandant!”
Holding Tom’s hand, Mundek Buergenthal walked up to the commandant. Before his father could say anything, Tom looked up and said, “Captain, I can work.” The commandant said, “That we will soon get to see,” then motioned father and son back to a line of people who would stay in the camp.
Buergenthal—until last year the American judge on the International Court of Justice in the Hague and now a professor at George Washington University law school—published an autobiography in 2007. (A US edition came out in 2009.) He called it A Lucky Child, but his luck surviving in Kielce was only the beginning.
He was sent to Auschwitz with his parents, and on the day he was headed for the gas chamber, the SS decided to delay the killings until they had more people. Buergenthal then survived the infamous “death march” after the Germans emptied the camp and was deported to Sachsenhausen camp, where he was liberated by the Soviets in 1945.
Although he was separated from his parents—his father died at Buchenwald—Buergenthal’s mother, Gerda, located him in 1946 at an orphanage near Warsaw.
He came to America when he was 17, eventually earning a law degree from Harvard. He was dean at American University’s law school and served on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador.
Most recently, he sat for a decade on the International Court of Justice, known as the World Court, before returning to Washington to be closer to his three children and two stepchildren and nine grandkids. He lives in Chevy Chase with his wife, Peggy.
In his GW office, Buergenthal talked about what he’s learned.
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