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.