Referral biography

Thomas Buergenthal: A Lucky Child. A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy

By Sara Bensa 

The book “A Lucky Child” is Thomas Buergenthal's autobiography, which was published in 2007. However, he began the book with: “This book should probably have been written many years ago, when the events I describe were still fresh in my mind.” The autobiography of a child, surviving the holocaust, bears an irreplaceable piece in the mosaic of testimonies of countless innocent victims. 

Thomas Buergenthal, born on 11th May 1934 in Lubochna, former Czechoslovakia, is a child of Mundek and Gerda Buergenthal. He dedicated his life to international law and the protection of human rights. Buergenthal served as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague from 2000 to 2010.

Buergenthal dedicated his book to his parents. He wanted to present his story to a wider audience since he believes that “Holocaust cannot be fully understood unless viewed through the eyes of those who lived through it.”

The war happened

At a young age, he and his parents with some other Jewish people reached the Polish city of Kielce in Southeastern Poland, after an unsuccessful attempt to flee from potential danger to Britain. They were told in Poland was a large Jewish communitiy that might take them in. If the train, which they were attempting to escape with, had not been bombed in an area where Kielce was the nearest Polish city with a big Jewish population, they would not have gone there. Anyway he is possitive that it would have made little difference if they had headed to any other Polish city. Thomas marvels at the courage and ingenuity of both his parents and describes their courageous uproars against officers or supervisors. This truly should be admired as well as his own bravery in many unbearable circumstances that followed. Being a child, he supposed it was only natural for his parents to know what to do. Moreover, not only was he a quick learner when it came to develop strategies in order to survive, but throughout his narration he also expressed an unbelievable desire for life.

In the late autumn of 1942 they were displaced to a labour camp, which was erected on the ground of the Kielce ghetto. From that time on, only two memories stand out in his mind and one of them is the proof of his cleverness as he knew what to say to a commandant while other children were being torn from the arms of their parents: “Captain, I can work.” Soon, at the age of 8 he found a job for himself as an errand boy. That was when he lost Ucek and Zarenka, two neighbour children, with whom he had befriended in the camp, and who had become like a brother and a sister to him. They were both first locked up in the nearby house with about thirty other children, from there they were taken to the Jewish cemetery, where they were killed. 

The Death Camp

At the beginning of August 1944, the family was deported to Auschwitz and were ‘luckily’ spared the selection process. Quickly after their arrival, he and his father were separated from his mother and sent to the so-called Gypsy camp. He worked as an errand boy, a job that gave him more freedom of movement and a greater chance to stay alive. The selection that followed in October was the last time he saw his father. 10-year-old Thomas was among the group of those who were about to die in the gas chamber. Unlike others, he did not just passively accept his fate. He tried to escape several times, but each time his inmates started to yell that he was escaping. That made him very angry and he could not understand why they would have done that. At that point he mentions how an extremely unusual change of emotion happened to him. All that fear of dying, anxiety and nervous tension suddenly vanished and a feeling of piece overcame him instead. Something incredible happened. They were not taken to the gas chamber, but shifted to the hospital camp. From there he was again taken to another area of the Auschwitz camp, the children’s barrack in camp D. There he encountered Michael and Janek, whom he knew from the labour camp in Kielce. Shortly after that he saw his mother again. Although he does not describe precisely how he felt, it becomes obvious that this event affected him a lot. 

Perseverance until the end

Soon after their encounter the rumors about Germany losing the war caught up with him, the Auschwitz Death March began. He was not sure whether to believe it or not. He never thought about actual liberation. He was more worried about how he could get through the cold Polish winter. Still, looking back at the huge murder factory, he felt victorious and in his mind he was addressing Hitler: “See, you tried to kill me, but I am still alive!” In my opinion his stubbornness and perseverance saved his life in the moments when it seemed easier just to give up. Maybe it was his father’s belief that the war would end soon that gave him hope. Staying alive had become a game he played against Hitler, he assumed in retrospect. The long death march in the cold caused him pain in his toes, they were swollen, discoloured and frostbitten. Firstly he did not want to see a doctor after they reached the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany; his friends Michael and Janek convinced him. He stayed at the infirmary after the surgery until the liberation of the camp. In the time between the liberation of Sachsenhausen and the reunion with his mother, he became a member of the Polish army and moved to Jewish orphanage of Otwock. The orphanage presented for him a halfway house between one life and another. He narrates: “It was here that I underwent a gradual transformation from a potentially frightened and hungry camp inmate, struggling to survive, to a relatively normal eleven-year-old child.” He never doubted his mother was alive. He hoped despite the odds. The day when his mother’s letter arrived at the orphanage was one of the happiest moments of his life. So was the 29 December 1946, when he and his mother fell into each other’s arms.

Life after the war

The author, despite the fact that the topic is extremely emotional, did not center his narration on descriptions of his personal feelings. I would say the narration is rather historically-based, although he was not sure about some of the exact dates of a few events. In the beginning he apologized for that. He was later given some additional information from the documents by the International Tracing Service (ITS) and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. That possibility meant a lot to him as he stated: “It's terrible, if there are gaps. You feel incomplete as a human being” and added that that archive was the only memorial of his father. In the book, he intended to contain his recollections of events and at the time of writing it was more than six decades after the war. Therefore it is normal that he could not be sure to distinguish clearly between some events that he witnessed and those he was told by his parents. His childhood experience has had a substantial impact on the human being he has became. Furthermore, when he was about to write a book in the 1950s, he could still recall vividly the fear of dying, the hunger, the sense of loss, the insecurity and his reactions to the horrors. Whereas he is positive that forgetting and loosing the intensity of emotions were significant for him to overcome the past without serious psychological scarring, so was leaving Germany, because he felt like a new life was about to begin and the old one had been left aside.

In Brief about the book

The language he used was concise, literary and the book presented an interesting reading. There are 11 chapters ordered chronologically. Anyway, the author pointed out that a few events might not have happened in the exact way he remembered them. There are also Foreword, Preface, Epilogue, Afterword and Acknowledgements. The author wrote his story in English, it is published in more than half of dozen other languages as well. 

Being a child during times of war

The book enables the reader to travel back into history, viewed through innocent young eyes. Throughout all mental and physical torment, he persisted in his hope and managed to turned his terrifying experience into a positive attitude towards his further life. He found his mission in preventing and protecting the world from any similar events. Everyone who had been through that horror comprehended it. There are no clear predictions for reactions and reasons why some victims were able to overcome Nazi atrocities while others were unable to do so. It is important to acknowledge that this is just one of the numerous testimonies telling what can occur and one way to make people aware of the consequances of war. Each individual who experienced the Holocaust has a personal story worth telling, if only to put a human face on some dissociated numbers of innocent victims. All people lost in any war or political persecution need to be treated as human beings and have to be named. They deserve it as much as we, living people, do.

References

Abramowitz, M. (2001). What I’ve Learned: Tom Buergenthal’s Lucky Childhood. Retrieved June 30, 2015, from http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/what-ive-learned-tom-buergenthals-lucky-childhood/

A sacred rememberance site for the victims of the Holocaust and of other Nazi atrocities (2012). Retrieved June 30, 2015, from: https://www.its-arolsen.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Bilder/publikationen/ICRC_Farewell.pdf

Buergenthal, T. (2015). A Lucky Child. Croydon: CPI Group.

 

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