Posts tagged A Lucky Child

Rare Archival Footage of Young Tom Buergenthal Located

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Otwock Orphanage

Seventy-six years ago today, Tom Buergenthal arrived at a Jewish orphanage in Otwock, Poland.  [Located 14 miles southeast of Warsaw, Otwock had been the site of a Jewish Ghetto earlier in the war.  By September 1942 the Ghetto’s inhabitants, numbering 12-15,000, had all been murdered.].  Tom had just spent the better part of 6+ months, since his liberation, traveling with the Scout Company of the 1st Kosciuszko Division, a Polish army division formed under Soviet auspices which had fought for months and participated in the fall of Berlin.

With his own cart and pony, and specially tailored military uniform, Tom was the division’s de facto mascot.  But with the war’s end, and the division back in Poland waiting to be demobilized, it was obvious that Tommy had no place, long-term, in such an organization, no matter how much they doted on him.  A sympathetic soldier, aware that Tom was Jewish (a fact which Tommy, understandably, was loath to publicize) located the orphanage in Otwock and made all the arrangements for Tom’s transfer to their care.

Tom was 11 years old.

In the preceding five years he had endured: the Kielce Ghetto; an Arbeitslager (a work camp) in Kielce; the Henryków work camp outside Kielce; Auschwitz Concentration Camp;  the Auschwitz Death March; and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

He had last seen his parents over a year ago; he had no idea of their whereabouts, or if they were even still alive.

He could neither read nor write.

Can anyone of us imagine—even for a moment—what it could have been like to be in his shoes at that point?

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting with Tom and his wife Peggy (our first post-COVID meeting).  As we talked, our subjects ranged over a wide variety of topics.  At some point Tom began to talk about life at Otwock, and how the orphanage tried to create a normal life for its young inhabitants, some of whom had survived in the camps; some of whom had survived in hiding; some of whom had survived under false identities; and some of whom simply had survived on their own when their parents were taken away or killed.

As Tom writes in his memoir A Lucky Child:

“It was here that I underwent a gradual transformation from being a perennially frightened and hungry camp inmate struggling to survive to an eleven-year-old child with a relatively normal life.  I enjoyed almost every minute of my stay at the orphanage.”

I asked Tom a simple question: did the orphanage still exist?  This question prompted Peggy to do a Google search.

What she found was nothing less than amazing.

An archival film, apparently shot in the summer of 1946, and now in the possession of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, showing life at Otwock.  Narrated in Yiddish and Hebrew, it shows clips of young children singing, being entertained by dancers, etc. And there was young Tom, now age 12, staring intently at the camera.

 In retrospect this is not altogether too surprising.  As Tom also relates in his memoir:

“Since I was the only one in the orphanage who had survived Auschwitz, I was frequently interviewed by journalists and trotted out to meet important visitors.  I even appeared occasionally in the newsreels that were shown in Polish movie houses in those pretelevision days.”

Here is the film.  Tom can be seen at 0:44; at 1:39 (he is in the second row, behind the girl with the hat); and at 2:22 (same).

We see shots of young Tommy, shirtless, looking healthy.  But one can’t help but notice that Tom is not really smiling, merely looking intently and seriously at the camera.  After all, it was not until September 1946—probably soon after this film was shot—that Tom finally learned for the first time that his mother was still alive (in fact he was mistakenly informed at the time that his “parents” were alive).  By the time this film was shot Tom had just about given up hope that he would ever be found and reunited with his parents, and had thus agreed to emigrate to Palestine.

Ironically, it was this decision—born of despair—that led to his name appearing on a list at the Jewish Agency of those wishing to emigrate.  In turn, this fact somehow—miraculously—caught the eye of someone at the Agency who had another list—a list of missing persons—with Tom’s name on it as well.  And that was how Tommy was finally found, and reunited with his mother.

It was then, and only then, that could he write: “[T]hat meant . . . I could be a child again.”

Before I left Tom and Peggy for the day, we played the film over and over several times.  In some of the images Tom could spot faces he remembered.  Even the words of the some of the songs came back to him.

Needless to say, it made for a very special, and very emotional, afternoon.

Thomas Buergenthal, Age 12

In The Beginning…..

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…….was the word.  Actually, many of them.  About 300,000 to be accurate.

While still in high school I adopted a practice I learned from the father of one of my school friends: writing on the front endpaper of one’s book one’s name and the date they started reading said book.  I later began to add the location where I started reading a book as well.  Thus, at a quick glance I can be transported back to the place and time associated with my memory of the book itself.  (Invariably, the actual date is further in the past than I would have otherwise guessed.)

Eleven years ago today I started reading an old diary written by an unknown (to me) Norwegian.  The book had been hard to come by—there was only one offered for sale that I could find anywhere in the United States; five in the entire globe.  I purchased one of those five from a book dealer in New Zealand.  The name of the book was From Day to Day.  Indeed, my only familiarity with the book came from a brief, footnoted mention of it in a memoir written by Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child, that I had read earlier that year.

With no preconception of what might lie within, and a bit put off by the diary’s length—over 500 pages—I made an initial decision to proceed rather deliberately.  I would read only one diary entry per day—sort of like a daily devotional—and thereby walk in the footsteps of the diarist as he recorded his experiences each day.  Soon that discipline gave way to two diary entries per day, and then three, and then more.

By that time, as I inform my audiences, I was hooked.

And the rest is history.  Exactly when I made the fateful decision to edit and republish Nansen’s diary is now a bit fuzzy, but clearly it occurred by year-end.   In early 2011 I visited Washington, DC to research the book’s copyright status at the Library of Congress, and to meet Tom Buergenthal for the first time.  After we discussed Tom’s memoir, and he showed me his shelf full of the many different translations of his book (17 at the time I recall), I tentatively mentioned my plans to get Nansen’s diary back into print.  Tom could not have been more supportive and encouraging, even writing a letter of introduction to Odd Nansen’s daughter Marit, thereby facilitating what became another wonderful friendship. With Tom’s blessing I was ready to tackle the project that would change my life in so many rewarding and delightful ways.

And it all began on August 8, 2010.

My Notation

August 2, 1944: Tom Buergenthal Enters Auschwitz

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Auschwitz

 

Seventy-seven years ago today Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz-Birkenau along with his parents.  Originally the site of a Polish army barracks (inhabited briefly by Jan Karski), Auschwitz was developed by the Nazis into the largest and deadliest concentration/extermination camp ever.  Approximately 1.1 million people—the population of Salt Lake City or Memphis—were murdered there.  Of this number, almost 1 million were Jews.

In Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, he writes that he was “lucky” to get into Auschwitz.  This is not meant to be facetious.  In many respects the worst day at Auschwitz was the first, for that typically meant a so-called selection at the railroad disembarkation ramp.  Here, those who could not be expected to work under grueling camp conditions—children, the aged, invalids—were separated from the rest and sent directly to the gas chambers.

Often times, if the camp was approaching full capacity (an elastic concept), even the able-bodied were sent directly to be gassed.  While I have done no study of the survival rate at the ramp, a few anecdotal examples provide some guidance.  In Martin Gilbert’s book Kristallnacht, he writes about the aftermath of the pogrom which occurred on November 9-10, 1938: “[I]n February [1943] . . . a thousand [German Jews] . . . were deported to Auschwitz . . . from Breslau, of whom 994 were sent straight to the gas chambers.”  Later he notes: “On 2 March 1943 one of the largest single deportations to Auschwitz took place: 1,500 Jewish men, women and children from Berlin.  Of them, 1,350 were sent to the gas chambers on arrival.”

Thus, just getting into Auschwitz was something of a victory.  “Had there been a selection, I would have been killed before ever making it into the camp,” Tom admits.

How did he escape the dreaded section?  We’ll never know the exact reason, but Tom’s surmise is no doubt correct: “The SS officers . . . probably assumed, since our transport came from a labor camp, that children and others had already been eliminated in those camps.”  Perhaps also the small size of Tom’s transport did not warrant a full-blown selection process.

Escaping a selection, however, while critical, was only half the story.  Now Tom had to find a way to navigate the crucible of Auschwitz—“the last place on earth many of the prisoners sent there were destined to see.”  Disease, starvation, exhaustion, and murder were just some of the dangers every prisoner faced every day.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents in happier days

Tom was instantly separated from his mother at the ramp, and, but for one brief glance through the wire, he was not to see or be reunited with her for almost two and a half years.  Tom’s father was also sent away in late October 1944, first to Sachsenhausen, and later to Buchenwald, where he would perish in January 1945.  Now Tom was all alone.

How did he manage?

For several years leading up to August 1944, in the Kielce Ghetto and elsewhere, Tom was getting an education of sorts from his parents: “the essentials of survival.” In Auschwitz and later in Sachsenhausen, Tom continued to learn “the tricks I needed to survive.”  Many other prisoners, by contrast, were thrust into Auschwitz directly from normal, middle-class environments without the benefit of such “training.”  They could hardly be expected to adapt overnight to brutal camp conditions.  One thinks of Anne Frank, whose final diary entry (August 1, 1944) was one day prior to Tom’s arrival.  She went from living in the comparative safety of her annex on the date of her arrest (August 4, 1944) to the maelstrom of Auschwitz a few short weeks later (September 6, 1944).  She, her sister Margot, and her mother Edith were all dead less than six months later.

Whatever the combination of factors—bureaucratic oversight by the Nazis, the innate or inculcated survival skills of a young child, or some other favorable alignment of the stars, on August 2, 1944, Thomas Buergenthal proved once again to be ein Glückskind—a lucky child.

April 26–A Day for Anniversaries

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My readers have by now undoubtedly noticed that I have a thing about anniversaries.

Today is no exception, and marks several important such anniversaries, including the fact that my mother, were she still alive, would have turned 100 today.

Also, today is the fourth anniversary of the re-appearance, in print, of the English version of From Day to Day, following a 67-year hiatus.  Perhaps equally important, this week represents the ten-year anniversary of my chance decision, in late April 2010, to purchase a newly published memoir called A Lucky Child, written by Thomas Buergenthal.

As I’ve pointed out to the audiences I have addressed, once you have, like me, amassed almost 5,000 books at home, the impetus to purchase yet another book comes quite easily.  And so I had little hesitation in purchasing A Lucky Child even though I knew almost nothing of the book’s contents or its author—no reviews, no advertising, no recommendations—beyond what I could see on its cover.  And yet A Lucky Child and From Day to Day, taken together, have changed the entire course of my life over these past 10 years—and hopefully for many more to come.  The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the history I’ve learned, have all changed me indelibly and, I feel, for the better.

I recently came across a quote, attributable to Eleanor Roosevelt, when explaining how her husband’s polio affected him.  “Anyone who has gone through great suffering,” she said, “is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”

Now, I make no claim to any such suffering.  In fact, I’ve led an incredibly privileged life.  But I feel that one can vicariously experience something of the suffering of others.  And the experiences of Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen—whose stories I’ve read, and re-read, and absorbed—have engendered, I hope, “a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”  I certainly cannot imagine a better insight into such problems than the combined experiences of these two special people provide.

Even if this is all true, it still begs an important question.  Why did I choose to purchase, and read, Tom’s memoir in 2010, which in turn induced me—via a single footnote on page 177—to search out Odd Nansen’s diary?

Perhaps the best explanation I can come up with is one I found in a book review written a few years ago.  The reviewer observed: “The life of an artifact or work of literature is subject to happenstance.  How it travels and settles, takes root and effloresces, depends on so many various and unpredictable factors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendipitous encounter or a rare individual’s advocacy. . . .” (emphasis added)

So, while I still scratch my head in wonder, I accept that I was fortunate to have had not one, but two, serendipitous encounters with such inspiring works, and the opportunity to advocate for them.

And that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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