Shoah survivor pens compelling memoir


You don’t ordinarily read the words “lucky” and “Auschwitz” together. But Thomas Buergenthal’s story is far from ordinary.

When he was five, in the Polish town of Katowice, his mother went with a friend to a famous fortune teller who told her “that her son was “ein Gl ückskind” — a lucky child –and that he would emerge unscathed from the future that awaited us.”

Five years later, in 1944, Buergenthal wound up with his parents in Auschwitz, and even then, as he looks back today, he thinks that he was lucky – lucky that they did not end up instead in the camp at Birkenau instead.

“Most people who arrived at the Birkenau rail platform had to undergo a so-called selection,” he explains in this moving memoir.

“Here the children, the elderly, and the invalids were separated from the rest of the people in their transport and taken directly to the gas chambers. Our group was spared the selection process. The SS officers in charge must not have ordered it because they probably assumed, since our transport came from a labor camp, that children and others not able to work had already been eliminated in those camps. Had there been a selection, I would have been killed before ever making it into the camp.”

Once in Auschwitz, even though he was separated from his mother and father, Buergenthal’s good fortune held, primarily in the form of small and large kindnesses of strangers — the Greek who played the mandolin and let him stay in a warm toilet longer than normal if he complimented the music; the Polish doctor who made sure he always had enough soap to avoid scabies, and later, helped him avoid the gas chamber; and, after liberation, the Czechs who threw loaves of bread from bridges into the open rail cars carrying the new refugees.

Buergenthal’s life in the camps was hardly idyllic, of course, far from a real-life version of the film Life is Beautiful. He witnessed suffering and cruelty no child should see, much less people at any age. Constantly reminded by the tattoo on his left arm that he was no longer little Tommy but was now prisoner B-2930, he saw prisoners led away to their deaths, including his own father, and was part of the infamous Auschwitz Death Transport, the forced march in 1945 that was one of the final measures of German desperation.

Does the world need another Holocaust memoir? In his foreword to A Lucky Child, Elie Wiesel talks about how it must sometimes seem that it was not six million Jews who died in the camps but “the same German tormentor who abused, tortured, and killed the same Jew six million times. And yet, each story retains its own identity, its own voice.”

Buergenthal’s unique voice comes not only from his story but from the perspective he uses to tell it — a long career as a distinguished jurist, currently the American judge at the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Had he told his story at an earlier age, he says, it would have been different. “I needed the distance of more than half a century to record my earlier life, for it allowed me to look at my childhood experiences with greater detachment.”

Looking back, he realizes:”I grew up in the camps — I knew no other life — and my sole objective was to stay alive, from hour to hour, from day to day. That was my mind-set. I measured time only in terms of the hours we had to wait to receive our next meal or the days remaining before Dr. Joseph Mengele would most likely mount another of his deadly selections.”

So when the day finally came when cries rang out through the camp, “Hitler kaputt! Hitler kaputt!,” it meant more than just the end of the war. It meant the beginning of healing, the end of having to protect himself, of finally being reunited with his mother, then eventually making his way out of Europe to the United States.

When a letter written in his mother’s unmistakable hand finally made its way to the children’s home where Buergenthal had been relocated, “it was the happiest moment of my life. I began to cry and laugh all at once, casting off the self-control and tough-guy attitude I sought to cultivate at the orphanage. I had a mother, and that meant that I could be a child again.”

And a lucky one at that.