Child 2930: The Implausible and Wonderful Life of Tom Buergenthal

Below is my column in The Messenger on the passing of one of the greatest figures in human rights law, my former colleague Tom Buergenthal. Tom will be laid to rest this afternoon in Florida. This life was one of the most inspiring stories of human perseverance; an example of sheer will to overcome unspeakable horrors. His book, A Lucky Child, is a moving account of his struggle to live and overcome in a world torn apart by hate and violence. I wanted to share some of Tom’s story with you in memory of one of the most extraordinary figures in our generation.

Here is the column:

The world lost one of its inspiring figures on Monday. With the passing of Thomas Buergenthal, I lost a mentor, a colleague and a friend, and the world lost a towering figure of international law who helped to create the field of human rights law.

Buergenthal was a force of kindness and forgiveness in an age of rage. His life story is about mankind’s limitless capacity for cruelty and for redemption.

Years ago, my medical colleagues at George Washington University were performing cardiac surgery on an elderly law professor when his arm slipped off the table. As a doctor gently raised the arm back, he saw the tattoo “2930.” The medical team realized they were operating on a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. I was told later that one doctor was overcome with the emotion of the moment.

The patient was Tom Buergenthal, and — even then — the doctors could not imagine the extraordinary path which brought him into their care. Indeed, he had survived repeated moments where his life was all but lost, only to survive and persevere.

As a child, Tom began a terrifying odyssey that started in the Jewish ghetto at Kielce, Poland. Born in Ľubochňa, Czechoslovakia, he was moved into despicable conditions in Poland as part of the Nazis’ “final solution.” Nearly every inhabitant of his ghetto was killed at Treblinka and other Nazi concentration camps. Some did not make it that far: They were forced on a merciless three-day march to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Tom, among them, was just 11 years old.

He survived the march only to find himself in another concentration camp as fellow Jews were sent for extermination.

Tom again survived, only to be sent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Upon his arrival, he came face-to-face with one of the most terrifying and hateful figures of history — Dr. Josef Rudolf Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death.” Mengele had a particular interest in using children for his lethal experiments; Tom was one of those chosen.

Mengele eventually amputated two of his toes. Tom once told me how, each night, he would sleep on a concrete floor with other children. Each had a paper attached to them that would designate them for “processing” in the extermination chambers. At night, Mengele would mark those children he wanted to remain. For a reason that Tom never understood, Mengele repeatedly marked him to survive, day by horrible day. In one tragic scene, Tom watched the Germans take a 6-year-old girl for execution as she asked, “Why must I be shot?”

But Tom survived again — one of the few child survivors of the infamous “Gypsy Camp.”

After the camp’s liberation, Tom reportedly was the last survivor to leave Auschwitz, which would prove to be a new threat: Since his family had been liquidated by the Nazis, Tom was sent to a Jewish orphanage for two years in Otwock, Poland. Tom told me that the Jewish underground was secretly taking the children to Palestine. However, as the last to leave Auschwitz and one of its youngest survivors, Tom remained a focus of reporters after the war. The Jewish underground did not want to risk the exposure of their network, so Tom was, again, one of the last to leave.

He found himself at a railroad station where a railway clerk looked at his papers and asked if he had a mother. Tom explained that he had no family left. The clerk, however, was perplexed by a name that seemed familiar; Tom assumed it was because of the news coverage he had received, but the clerk held him for an extra day. It turned out that the clerk had recalled a woman with a similar name who was looking for her boy.

It was Tom’s mother. She also had survived and had walked from town to town, looking for him. She was on the outskirts of the city when something pulled her back and, for the first time, she decided to return. When she walked into the station, she saw a little figure waiting to take the next train. It was her son, and the two embraced on the platform. They had survived.

What followed next was even less plausible. Tom would make it with his mother to the United States and ultimately studied law, with a J.D. at New York University Law School and his LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees in international law from Harvard Law School. In 1973, he co-authored (with the great Louis Sohn) the first casebook on human rights, titled, International Protection of Human Rights.

He would become a law professor and one of the most influential figures on human rights law in history, eventually serving as a member of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. He also would serve as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (including as its president), a commissioner on the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, and as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

As fate would have it, while serving on the World Court, neo-Nazis brought a case challenging punishment for their denial of the Holocaust; they sought to prove it was all a fabrication. In one of the most devastating recusal decisions in history, Tom removed himself from the case, since he felt it would be improper for him to judge the existence of the concentration camps as a survivor of one. The recusal was a riveting moment for the court, and his colleagues quickly dispensed with the frivolous claim.

When I joined the George Washington Law School in 1990, the greatest draw was to serve on the faculty with a man who was a legend in international law. We quickly became friends, and he became part of my personal and professional life. I consider the association to be one of the greatest honors of my life.

What I always found most amazing about Tom was the absence of any hate or anger despite the horrors he had faced. He never lost faith in humanity. His life was one of grace, one of transcendence. There was a calmness, even a tranquility, about Tom that I have never experienced in any other person. He made me want to be a better man. He still does.

After 89 years, Tom has now passed from this world. We desperately need his inspiration as we again turn on each other in violent, hateful acts. Europe again is being ravaged by war, as powerful leaders lay waste to the lives of millions. It is easy to look around today and lose hope. However, when those moments come for me, I think of an 11-year-old boy left alone in the very belly of the beast. I think of an embrace of a mother and her only child on a lonely train platform in Poland. I think of a judge on the World Court defining the human rights once denied to him and everyone he loved. I think of the number 2930.

I think of Tom Buergenthal.

Jonathan Turley, an attorney, constitutional law scholar and legal analyst, is the Shapiro Chair for Public Interest Law at The George Washington University Law School.

168 thoughts on “Child 2930: The Implausible and Wonderful Life of Tom Buergenthal”

  1. Yes, Professor, let me add my name to those who have expressed their great admiration for this column. “Luck” certainly had a major role in Tom’s survival, but I cannot help but think that Tom, even as a child, had a presence of mind, a survival instinct, that got him through the horror.

  2. Professor Turley,

    Auschwitz, a name never to be forgotten. I am sorry for your loss. I note that Tom Buergenthal never removed his numbers. I wonder if you ever asked him why since doctors in this country volunteered to remove them for free.

    That is a missing answer I never got and never pursued from my inlaws, but they gave me the greatest gift, their daughter, and from her, together, we rebuild a new future. That is the way for the Jewish People who have suffered intermittent destruction and death followed by rebuilding.

    Today, anti-Semitism is building again, even in this country, especially from the left. I can only hope and pray my grandchildren do not have to face another Holocaust.

    May Tom Buergenthal rest in peace.

    1. Meyer, American Jews are more likely to be liberals than conservatives. So they aren’t likely to approve of Israel’s current, far-right regime. Is this what you really mean with regards to ‘antisemitism’ from the left.

      1. So? What are you trying to say? Are you trying to say that Jews who do not accept their Jewishness are far more likely to look for and find another faith-based religion, in this case, leftism?

        “Israel’s current, far-right regime”

        Are they so far to the right? The big problem is that Israel’s Supreme Court is acting like an oligarchy and self-appointing its members. The Supreme Court was not elected! That is a problem. The Knesset and Prime Minister were elected, and despite that, the Supreme Court can invalidate any laws the elected leaders pass.

        The present status is not functioning under Democratic rule. This is not to say that problems don’t exist on the other side, only to explain the problem that exists today. The so-called right wants a Supreme Court more like the American Supreme Court than a court frequently seen in a dictatorship.

        The real problem is that Israel is functioning without a written Constitution. It is a wonderful nation with wonderful people, whether on the so-called left, or the so-called right.

        1. Meyer, Israel’s far-right regime empowers Orthodox settlers who keep chipping off more of the West Bank. Yet these same settlers are exempt from military service. How ironic! Their activities are a constant irritant with regards to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

          1. Irving, you may not realize Israel has legal sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. Jordan occupied that area illegally. There is documentation under international law proving Israeli sovereignty. Such laws apply to all nations.

            Palestinians of today never had a homeland. They came from all over the Middle East. Take note, originally when people talked about the Palestinians they were talking about the land of Israel being developed by Jews.

            An irritation to Israeli-Palestinian relations is that Hamas and “the Palestinians” under Abbas refuse to accept the Jewish State of Israel. Also, keep in mind that terrorists kill Jewish civilians, and when they become martyrs, streets are named after them, and their families are given substantial amounts of money every year for their loss. Add to that, their children are taught that Jews are sub-human.

            I have no gripe with today’s Palestinians and wish them well.

      2. American Jews are increasingly voting republican.

        Jewish approval of the government of Israel is unlikely to be determined by American political alignments.

        Separately one can disagree with policy choices of the government of Israel without being anti-sematic.
        But it is uncommon for someone to be strongly anti-Israel without also being anti-semetic.

        Over the course of the past 40 years 10’s of thousands of Jews who have lived in other parts of the mideast for thousands of years have been driven from their homes. That is pretty anti-semetic. We have also seen the same thing with christians in most of the mideast.

      3. “American Jews are more likely to be . . .”

        Come on, people. Show a little respect. Take it outside.

    2. S. Meyer…..I have the deepest admiration for your wife’s family and for you. I’ve commented here to enigmainblack (who tries to convince us of his “victimhood” as he seeks sympathy with his shallow whining and bellyaching) that if we want to hear a truly, truly sad story, we should talk to a Jew. At age 77, I sitll cannot comprehend the absolute horrors inflicted upon those dear people!
      We are in awe of the Jewish people’s ability to soar as they have risen, literally, from the ashes of the Holocaust. No other people have come close to their determination, their fortitude, their discipline, their achievements–all of which have made all lives richer.
      Bless you and your family.

      1. Cindy, thank you. If you look at the history of the Jews, you will see that the Holocaust was nothing new. There have been slaughters of Jews throughout the ages, but they always recover and create. Look at Israel today, a tiny nation faced with enemies that, along with other things, is a leading producer of high-tech items. One has to ask, how the Jews can rebuild each time they are destroyed.

        Irving Lazar doesn’t see what is happening today or the anti-Semitism of the left. That, unfortunately, is typical of many Jews. I suspect he will never find out, but his grandchildren or great-grandchildren will.

        As far as Enigma goes, he is permanently attached to victimhood. It is strange that he reaps all the benefits but cries all the time. Much of my wife’s family and mine are dead. My wife and her parents came to the US with only the shirts on their backs. They never asked or got anything from the government and earned an honest living the hard way. Yet we are successful beyond our dreams.

        1. S..Meyer…..Oh yes…absolutely….the slaughter and destruction over the centuries! Jews are even called out in the Magna Carta for their money lending practices!! Honestlawyermostly was speechless when he read it for the first time!
          Unbelievablw! The resilience of your people has been absolutely beyond incredible! And you and your wife, with her poignant, powerful story, must be so proud of your heritage!
          My mother taught Old and New Testament at our Baptist church, where we had a “sister” synagogue there in Houston. My father, as the church Minister of Music organized a “service of the Psalms” which was a program of psalms that had been set to music….Both congregations attended…it was wonderful! My parents loved the Jewish people and always taught us, their children, that we have more in common than we have differences. It’s just heartbreaking to see the way Israel is treated and regarded by the Left today. I literally cried tears of happiness when Pres.Trump moved our embassy back to Jerusalem, where it belonged. It was supposed to have been done 30 years earlier as you know! What a triumphant moment for the U.S. and Israel.
          Whenever I have had Jewish patients to sing to, either in nursing homes or assisted living, I have LOVED singing those wonderful ancient songs with them…… Hevenu Shalom Aleichem (my favorite), Shalom Chaverim, etc. And we had a Jewish New Year’s program last year with our church elderly/Alzheimer’s group and their caregivers…..even did the dance Horah! No one was Jeswish, but we all had a great time celebrating the Jewish culture. The gorgeous Hebrew songs set in minor keys are so festive-sounding!
          Although he’s grieving for his friend, I’m grateful Professor Turley took time to include us in his grief by sharing Tom Buergenthal’s deeply moving story,
          All the best to you and your wife!

          1. Thank you Cindy for lifting my spirits after my last post which brought up depressing memories. My in laws now rest in peace, but their generation paid for mine and for that I am eternally grateful.

            I wish you were here to sing. You are a wonderful woman who carries only what is good. The best to you, your husband and your family.

            1. S. Meyer—-I appreciated your last comment, over on the next page, about the tattoos and numbers and have left a comment for you.
              Thank you for your kind remarks! I deeply appreciate them! Believe me, I’m nothing special….I just love sharing music and getting people to sing…..It’s fun and it’s healing!
              Thank you, again!

  3. This history of an individual is inspirational, humbling and beyond all else proof that any individual regardless of obstacles they may encounter in life, can succeed if they have a mind too.

    I’d like to place a symbolic stone for Tom, mitzvah of Matzevah.

  4. This was one of your better articles. You are developing your craft well.

    In high school we read Victor Frankl’s magnum opus Man’s Search for Meaning which detailed recounted his life as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl became a prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 37 as a highly trained, academic Austrian psychiatrist and a devout Jew. His father, mother, brother and newly wedded wife, were all murdered in the camps. He spent several years in multiple concentration camps, trying to help the prisoners as a devout Jew and physician, while also observing. After being liberated, he earned a PhD and wrote his famous book. Threw it all he overcame what others could not.

    One of his overarching questions was, to paraphrase, “why do some people overcome adversity with their mental faculties, emotional health, and will to live, developed, while others diminish or are broken for life?” His answer was in the title of his book.

    I read Frankl’s book a second time in medical school where it had a bigger impact, not just in the clinic but also in making sense of the growing pathology of our nation. Indeed, Frankl’s observations are mine today about those who call themselves Catholics, Christians, Jews, Muslims and conservatives vis a vis the collapse of our current world, and do nothing but complain.

    It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual…..Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

    ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

    Viktor Frankl’s answer to extreme adversity is applicable to our world today.

  5. I think you have penned a wonderful tribute to a departed friend who greatly influenced you and so many others…..a Man who found grace, and love, despite all of the hate and evil that he had experienced.

    The image of a young child being united with his Mother after so much suffering because of a Station Master’s kind and timely intervention is beyond moving.

    I remember viewing films taken at the order of General Eisenhower that were of the liberation of the Death Camps by Allied Forces….shown at drive-in theaters and movie houses around the Country.

    Even as a small child I understood what I was seeing and just the viewing of the films made me understand what true evil was all about and that has stayed with me since..

    I cannot fathom how living it must. have been. and for your good friend to have overcome those residual effects and become the Man he was instructs us on what a great Man he was.

    Good does triumph over evil and he was living proof of that.

    If we all lived up to the Standard he set for himself this would be a much better World we live in.

  6. This is a great opportunity to focus on why – if we educate and preserve – why this could never happen here if our government officials are properly trained in their Oath of Office loyalty oath.

    In the USA, from the local police officer to the FBI to the CIA – 100% of American officials swear supreme loyalty in their job authority to a constitution that supports individual liberties that even protects minority citizens.

    In 1930’s Germany, the government employees supreme loyalty oath was to a single person. During the Cold War our enemies swore supreme loyalty to a political party.

    What American voters should be concerned about is that we violated Ronald Reagan’s Torture Treaty – led by the attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice in violation of their constitutional Oath of Office. Those same DOJ attorneys also destroyed the American designed “Nuremberg Defense” used to prosecute Nazis following World War Two. In the 21st Century, we overturned 200 years of American constitutional rule of law without even a whimper from voters.

    CIA official, John Kiriakou, was following the “Nuremberg Defense” precedent from World War Two when he refused to torture. Kiriakou refused to violate Reagan’s Torture Treaty being loyal to his Oath of Office. The Bush DOJ then sent Kiriakou to prison for several years for being too loyal to America. This was preceded by the Joseph Nacchio Qwest CEO case about 7 months before 9/11 when no wartime emergency existed. Nacchio was also sent to prison.

    20 years later, both Hollywood and most news outlets have not dealt with how vital the American Oath of Office is to our American freedoms, which prevent us from becoming despotic like our past enemies.

    Nazis perceived themselves as loyal also. Americans should not fall into that authoritarian trap. Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open in 2023, America tortured and committed war crimes! American officials vitally need Oath of Office education and trading on an annual basis – from the local police chief to the CIA Director.

    1. RUTT,

      The FBI and DOJ of today….by failing to live up to that Oath they take….make themselves conspirators in the destruction of the Country, the Rule of Law, and by default are attempting to usurp the democratic processes that underpin our entire system of government. Yet, half the American people are being brainwashed by a media that has linked arms and are acting in concert with the FBI and DOJ…..and are willingly and blindly surrendering their very freedoms contained in the Constitution that those in the FBI and DOJ are ignoring.

      How does this end?

      Do we see the end of the Great Experiment or do we see those doing the Sin cast out and punished?

      How do we ensure the survival of the kind of government envisioned and codified by the Founding Fathers?


        Bernie Bros want to destroy police departments and Trumpers want to destroy the FBI. Any common criminal can appreciate the ‘wisdom’ in these efforts.

      2. re: Ralph Chappell:

        Americans of both parties benefit from a strong constitutional rule of law system (which requires an Independent Judiciary).

        Throughout world history, minority groups disproportionately get harmed by unconstitutional government and government officials violating their Oath of Office. The popular vote simply cares little about the minority of the moment.

        In 30 years, the tables will turn. Mostly Trump supporters will be in the minority group – needing a strong constitutional rule of law and an Independent Judiciary that is non-political.

        It’s in the interests of all Americans to preserve the constitutional rule of law system – today it protects Women, African-Americans, LGBT-Americans but in 30 years the rest of us will need those protections also.

        What to do now? Not necessarily punish the lawless and disloyal Bush era officials that violated their own Oath of Office to uphold the U.S. Constitution but where are the real reforms? The agency leaders are trying to obtain more (not less) unconstitutional authority and the U.S. Supreme Court is moving way to slow upholding their own Oath of Office to a “wartime governing charter” designed to be followed during wartime.

        Guantanamo Bay is still open. After 20 years we now know there was no evidence whatsoever to imprison 86% of the so-called “worst of the worst” in the early 2000’s. 86% were “sold” to coalition troops by rival warlords and tribal chieftains. The vast majority were never captured on any battlefield. Punishing the wrong people makes Americans less safe.

        It’s been more than 20 years, if not now, when is a good time to start acting like Americans again?

        1. Svelaz, you are a self-centered, prissy, bitter queen who lacks meaning in life other than to troll this forum using scores of sock puppets to draw attention to yourself.

          You were more fun when you were Peter Hill. I look forward to your comments being deleted by Darren

  7. I am sorry for the loss of your friend and colleague. His is the inspiring story of a man who refused to surrender to grotesque injustices.

  8. For someone who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, I wonder what he thought of the incessant Hitler comparisons in today’s shallow political discourse, or what he thought of academia’s present trend toward labeling speech with which they disagree as “violence” – as reflected in Professor Turley’s other article for today, and in so many more recent examples.

  9. What a beautiful tribute! Thank you for bringing us the story of this wonderful man; I am enriched by the knowing.

  10. That was truly outstanding. Not only was it a wonderful blueprint for how one should live your life but the story of forgiveness and trying to move on to the better world that is out there. It is also a wonderful lesson or those who complain about a life as being too tough. As compared to what.
    One of the best things my father ever did, before we left his posting in West Germany in the US Army, in 1956 was to visit a smaller Death Camp near Mannheim, Germany. Even as a child of 8, I was overcome by some of the horrors we saw in that camp, ranging from heavily used ovens, the wall for firing squads and the uncounted pictures of victims from all over Europe. Still can see that in my mind. Soldier that he was, my father had moved on and daily worked with the new German Army 8-9 yrs after he had been in death struggles with them in the Bulge or the Hurtgenwald. He, strangely to me, had moved past that and saw them, for the most part, as fellow soldiers doing their job as he did his. I was lucky to have him as a father.
    How well we remember these giants, if we have met them. They truly are examples of the best we can be. All we have to do is listen and follow their lead.

  11. Meanwhile at CUNY Law we have a Yemeni girl filled with bitterness and hatred along with rabid anti-Semitism being given the opportunity to give the commencement speech, a speech raining down hatred on everyone that is not her.

    I am so sick of hearing about all of the so-called travails that the trans people are going through by not allowing children to be mutilated, the so called “systemic racism” that being screamed at us by the likes of Cori Bush and Ilhan Omar…from Their SEATS IN CONGRESS. The attacks on police by people with armed guards. Of course I want to add the attacks on Israel and Jews on campuses like CUNY where the Palestinian groups have banned open thought about the only democracy in the ME.

    Thank you Professor for that beautiful tribute.

    1. As Golda Meir, I believe said. “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

      1. Actually it was Abba Eban who said it in 1973 before “Palestinians” were invented as a distinct nation. Until that time “Palestine” referred to territory. The anti-israel Arabs considered themselves part of the Arab nation and were happy to join Jordan or Syria, having no historical sense of distinct nationhood.

  12. Prof Turley,

    Very nice remembrance for Tom.

    For others, myself, like Infowars that still attempt to follow the past & ongoing World Genocide/Democide by Govt’s & assorted evil b*stards I think I would have loved to have spoke with Tom for a few hours knowing it likely could have turned into an open ended conversation.


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  13. What a beautiful and sad story of the worst and best in mankind. There’s a lesson here for today that should not go unnoticed. The ability to forgive is the key to future success. The history of the world – the entire world – is one that includes many instances of hatred of one group for another. This was true in biblical times when tribes and believers in idolatry and God murdered each other because of their differences. The same occurred in the 16th century and beyond because of the Reformation in Europe. Slavery was brought to the “New” world and enshrined another chapter in unfairness that required a Civil War to overcome. And then we had the great wars of the 20th century fought to end what Thomas Buergenthal experienced firsthand. So, where have we arrived now that all these things have come to pass? Religious tolerance has improved somewhat. Few among us today murder others because of their spiritual beliefs. The North and the South have reunited and for the better. Germany and Japan are now allies of the United States and the horrors and sadness from the past are just fading memories among those left in Tom’s generation. At a time when so much of our culture seems at risk from the intolerant left, it might be well to take a moment to think of what people like Tom Buergenthal knew and practiced. Forgiveness and love are powerful forces that vanquish vengeance and hatred. Those who understand this, like Tom, live long and successful lives. Those unable or unwilling to forgive the past are destined to live shorter and more troubled lives. That’s a very important lesson that should not go unnoticed. Thank you, Tom, for leaving it to us. May you rest in peace.

  14. Professor Turley, thank you for sharing such a beautiful commentary about the life of Thomas Buergenthal. Reading your story leaves me overcome by grief that our world has lost one more witness, one more voice of remembrance, and one more voice of wisdom about avoiding the horrors the last century. Let us all never forget 3930!

    1. Thank you, Professor Turley, for sharing your thoughts on someone who was not only a friend you’ve had the honor to know, but someone we should all get to know more about. I’ll be getting the book, about the “Lucky Child” in hopes of getting to know more about Mr. Thomas Buergenthal. Maybe, just maybe, some of his insights and humility will rub off on me. It sure sounds like everyone could use a bit of what he brought and left for this old world.

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