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Conversation with… Judge Thomas Buergenthal

“I think that with most human beings, when they are in a difficult position, the one thing they hold onto is hope…they can deal with almost anything they have to face if they have hope.”

By Cindy Mindell

Dr. Thomas Buergental

Dr. Thomas Buergental

Thomas Buergenthal was born in 1934 to German- and Polish-Jewish parents who had moved from Germany to Czechoslovakia in 1933. He grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Kielce, Poland, and later in the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. After the war, he lived with his mother in her hometown of Göttingen, Germany until age 17.
In 1951, Buergenthal emigrated from Germany to the U.S. He graduated in 1957 from Bethany College in West Virginia, and received his J.D. at New York University Law School in 1960, and his LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees in international law from Harvard Law School. Buergenthal is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and received the 2008 International Justice Prize from the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation.
A specialist in international law and human-rights law, Buergenthal has served as judge and president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as judge on the Inter-American Development Bank’s Administrative Tribunal, and as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador. He was the American judge on the International Court of Justice from 2000 until his resignation in 2010.
Buergenthal is the author of many books, articles, and essays on international and human-rights law. His memoir, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, which describes his Holocaust experience, has been translated into more than a dozen languages and was first published in the U.S. in 2009.
Buergenthal will discuss his book on Sunday, Apr. 7 at the Yom Hashoah Community Holocaust Commemoration in Stamford.
In a 2010 interview with former CNN journalist Todd Benjamin, Buergenthal explained why he waited nearly six decades to write about his Holocaust experiences:
“I waited, really, because I had so many other things to do that I thought were more important: first going to law school, then raising a family, and then working in the human-rights field. I always knew I was going to write that book, and then one moment I suddenly realized if I don’t write it now, I’ll never do it. One gets sort of a sense that one’s immortality is not really all there, so I sat down and just wrote it.
“The book would have been very different if I had written it earlier; it would have been a book probably filled with hatred, focusing much more on the terrible things that happened, the details. When you’re 55 years removed from that terrible tragedy, your mode of describing it is much more reflective. And in my opinion, the book is a better book for waiting so long. It’s not as descriptive in terms of the horror, but it probably captures at least my memory, on reflection, after 60 years.”
Judge Buergenthal spoke with the Ledger about why he has dedicated his life to the field of human rights, and how he has remained optimistic about humanity.

book cover Lucky childQ: With everything you have survived and witnessed, how have you remained optimistic?
A: It couldn’t have been any other way. I realized how lucky I was to survive, how many people helped me along – so it’s only natural that I would look at the world not as an embittered person, but with a desire to work to prevent what happened to us and not be destroyed by hate. It took me a while to realize all this; you don’t get it from one moment to the next. When you think about the past and when you see what’s happening in the world again, that all contributes to a different kind of person than the one you were in the camps.
I knew that I wanted to do something in the international law area, partly because of my own experiences during the Holocaust, and I was gradually moved into this field. Not long ago, when my wife and I were packing to go to The Hague, I came across my application to the Harvard graduate program in law and I had indicated that I wanted to do human rights and international courts, and I had totally forgotten that. I was shocked: if you had asked me the day before I’d found the application what I wanted to specialize in, I would have mumbled something about international law in general, but it was as clear as anything what I wanted to do.
When one is very young, one is very impatient and sees how long it takes to achieve the things one wants. I learned how difficult it is to change people’s views and bad habits. So whatever successes you see lead to more hope. My approach has been that, in order to live a more or less positive life, I must look to the hope side of events.

Q: How has that tendency towards hope helped you in your work?
A: In the field of human rights, if you’re a cynic, you should get out and do something different. You have to believe it’s possible to achieve the things you want to achieve. If you’ve survived what I survived, hope is something that is always part of my nature. I think that with most human beings, when they are in a difficult position, the one thing they hold onto is hope and they can deal with almost anything they have to face if they have hope. That is my approach to life.
When you look at Germany, it started out as a killer nation and today is the most democratic country in Europe in many ways, including in its educational system. It makes me very optimistic to see that education can achieve a lot in the human-rights field. Other things have been achieved in international human rights, and I believe that if we had had some of the international organizations in the 1930s that we have today, we could have prevented some of the things Hitler was able to do. We have institutions that make it possible to prevent some terrible massacres and genocides from happening; on the other hand, they’re still not strong enough to prevent all of them.
Of course, we only hear about the genocides that have been committed and that are being committed, but we don’t hear of those that have been prevented. A lot of terrible things can be prevented, but some keep happening and will still keep happening. We are building a system to prevent these things from happening in the future.

Q: You served on the International Court of Justice from 2000 to 2010, and were slated to remain there until 2015. Why did you resign early?
A: My wife and I have nine grandchildren. We were living in The Hague and the only time we could talk to them, because of the time difference, is over the weekend. So they knew us only as these strange gray-haired people who would show up out of nowhere once a week and then leave again. If I had joined the court when I was younger, I would have stayed longer, but I started at age 65.
I enjoyed the work but I am back now in my old chair at George Washington University, teaching international law. I am debating whether to continue; my wife says that I should give it up because I am involved in too many things, but that’s been my life. I serve on the International Olympic Committee Ethics Committee and on the Panels of Conciliators and of Arbitrators of the World Bank. I am working on three books.
My American and British publishers asked me for a second edition of A Lucky Child because I discovered new documentation in Germany that I didn’t have when I first wrote it, on my mother’s two-year search for me, and also some relating to my father. I am also writing on the fifth edition of Protecting Human Rights in the Americas. I would like to put together a casebook on the international judicial system; I see them as part of one system and not different systems.
And then, one thing that is always fascinating about teaching is that your former students never forget you when they need a recommendation. They come back 20 or 30 years later, especially if you’ve held a position of some importance.

Q: What will you address at the Stamford program on Apr. 7?
A: I am planning to talk about my book and answer questions from that period and that experience. I do not want to talk about politics, particularly at this time of the year, but rather to focus on what happened to me and what it meant to be a child in that environment and how it affected me. People have read a lot of Holocaust books but may not have had the opportunity to talk with child survivors.
When I started writing my book, I thought about the differences in how I experienced the Holocaust and what my parents went through. Many people know Elie Wiesel’s work; he was a teenager when he went through the Holocaust, and I was liberated when I was 10, so I experienced it in a very different way. My mother survived, my father did not, but what they took out of the Holocaust was very different from what I did. In some ways, it was easier for me – emotionally, not physically – because what I experienced in the Holocaust was “normal life” and I didn’t know anything else. My parents’ life, what they knew before the Holocaust, was destroyed. What I thought about was living and eating. I was hungry and always in danger of being killed, a very different childhood than what they had experienced.
People have heard a lot of talks but often don’t have the opportunity to ask questions of someone who has gone through the experiences being described. Something that very often is discussed at programs like this is not true for me: When people talk about the Holocaust, it becomes heavy and depressing, but I want to give a different perspective, of what the experience has meant to me, what it can mean, and how we might prevent future genocide.

Q: How can we do that?
A: The International Court of Justice, international human-rights bodies, education; doing a little less hating and practicing more tolerance, all of those “very easy” things.
The ACLU, ADL, the Blaustein Institute of the American Jewish Committee [where Buergenthal serves on the board] – those programs are very valuable. We need these groups because there are a lot of other groups devoted to the opposite cause. I see the children today – Syrians, other refugees – and I see myself. Only when we relate to others’ suffering can we create organizations to prevent more suffering.
I had a wonderful professor at Harvard, with whom I wrote the first American casebook on international human rights, and he told me, “To build a wall with bricks, you lay one on top of the other and it takes a long time. But the important thing is to get the wall built.”

Yom HaShoah Community Holocaust Commemoration with survivor, author, and humanitarian Judge Thomas Buergenthal: Sunday, April 7, 7 p.m., Temple Beth El, 350 Roxbury Road, Stamford, Info: / (203) 321-1373

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