Posts tagged Thomas Buergenthal

The Ides of March

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[Blogger’s Note: Most of my forthcoming scheduled appearances are now being postponed until further notice.  In my own contribution to “social distancing,” I plan to stay home as much as possible, and write more blogs.]

The 15th of March has had a bad connotation for quite some time—since at least 44 BC to be exact, when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Shakespeare turned the date into a meme of sorts in his 1599 play about Caesar—as something to “beware of.”

March 15, 1939 was a particularly grim day, all told, in the lives of many.

Odd Nansen

On that day Odd Nansen was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, having just returned on the 13th from a mission in Bratislava.  In both cities he was toiling away at helping refugees.  Nansenhjelpen, the organization he founded and ran, had been fighting an uphill battle since 1936.  By this time Nansen and his wife Kari were pursuing both legal means (visas) and not so legal means (smuggling) in their efforts to assist desperate refugees fleeing persecution.  In fact, a transport of eighty refugees was set to depart Prague for Norway—on March 15.

In the early morning hours of the scheduled departure date Nansen was awakened by a call notifying him that German forces had crossed the Czech border, and would arrive in Prague shortly.  And shortly they did arrive, in force, directing traffic, shutting down all trains, commandeering all local hotels.  The Nansens were summarily ejected from their hotel room/office.  With some inside help, and a bribe to grease things, they soon secured a room in the nearby Hotel Alcron.

With all trains halted, Nansen’s first order of business was securing the release of his eighty trapped refugees.  By a stroke of luck, a German general, Erich Hoepner, was also staying at the Alcron, and Nansen obtained a meeting with him.

According to author Maynard Cohen, writing in his book A Stand Against Tyranny:

“Odd Nansen began with a description of the refugees in the forest outside Prague, how at that moment they lay in the snow beneath the open sky outside Prague, having forsaken their quarters in fear of the Gestapo.  He spoke of the sick and the old, the women and children, who had fled from country to country and city to city to avoid their ever-following pursuers.”

Hoepner relented, and allowed the women and children to depart by train; the men were illegally smuggled across the border into Poland.*

Less than three years later, Nansen would find himself a prisoner of the Nazis.**

Meanwhile, somewhere along the Czech/Polish border, four-year-old Tommy Buergenthal was stuck, along with his parents, was in his own purgatory.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Tom’s parents (following an ominous visit to the local police station), had decided that Czechoslovakia was no longer safe for them and they headed out for Poland.  They got as far as the border, where they became trapped in a no-man’s-land, the 50-yd strip that separated the Polish border post from the Czech border post.  As stateless refugees they had no valid travel documents.  Tom relates in his memoir, A Luck Child:

“As soon as we got to the Polish side of the border, the Polish guards would order us back to the Czech side.  The Czechs, in turn, would not allow us to reenter.  And so it went on for days. . . .  Back and forth we went, day and night.  We would sleep in the field adjacent to the road between the border posts or in one of the ditches [which ran alongside the road].”

It was only when heavily armed German troops arrived at the Czech border on March 15th did things change.  When Tom’s parents were able to convince the Germans (“the very people we were trying to escape”) that they were Polish, the German in charge browbeat the Polish guards into admitting the Buergenthals.  “That is how we got into Poland.”  It may have seemed like deliverance at the time, but the Kielce Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lay ahead.

Ilse Weber

Elsewhere in Prague Ilse and Willi Weber, along with their five-year-old son (also named Tommy), were similarly scrambling to escape.  Willi had applied to the Palestine Office in 1938 for a certificate allowing his family to emigrate to Palestine, and it was granted.  Before he could take advantage of his good luck, however, the Czech government ruled that Jews from the Sudetenland (absorbed into Germany in October, 1938 pursuant to the Munich Pact) should be given first priority.  Willi was assured he would automatically qualify for the next certificates—scheduled to arrive March 15.  When, as Willi later wrote, “Adolf’s hordes arrived” on that fateful day, the Palestine Office in Prague left.  While some certificates ultimately did arrive in Prague a bit later, their price had almost quadrupled, beyond the reach of the Webers.

In 1942 the Webers were deported to Theresienstadt.  There over 30,000 prisoners would perish, most from starvation.  As Willi noted, “most of the dead were old people; the young always figured out how to help themselves in some way, and those who worked received bigger rations.”  Ilse and young Tommy Weber were later sent to Auschwitz, where they were both gassed upon arrival. Willi, also transported to Auschwitz, survived the war.***

Martha Gellhorn, the American journalist and war correspondent, had also been in Prague, arriving in June 1938.  Did she ever meet Odd Nansen? Perhaps: her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, writes that “she found herself drawn . . . into the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go.”  According to Gellhorn herself, in February 1939, “in the beautiful bolt-hole [hideaway] of Cuba,“ she began to write a short story about the refugees of Prague.  It ultimately grew into a novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940.

Martha Gellhorn

In an afterword to her novel, Gellhorn quotes from a letter she wrote on March 19, 1939—four days after Odd Nansen’s heroic act; four days after Tom Buergenthal’s family’s escape from no-man’s-land into an even darker future; four days after the hopes and dreams of the Weber family were so terribly dashed:

“We live in a world unlike any other at any time.  A world so cruel and mad that one cannot believe it will survive. . . I think, no doubt selfishly, that right now there is nothing to do about it except help one’s friends.”

Right now we are all concerned with the coronavirus.  So much is unknown: how fast will it spread; who will it infect; will hospitals be prepared; who will die?  All of this is truly unnerving.  But would any of us trade our world, with all the promise it holds, for the far more difficult and uncertain one inhabited by the Nansens, the Buergenthals, the Webers, or the refugees of Prague? Of course not.

And if they could face their unknown futures resolutely, perhaps we can take some courage from their example, and focus on “help[ing] one’s friends.”

* Hoepner was hanged on August 8, 1944, for his part in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.  As further punishment, his wife and daughter were sent to Ravensbrück, and his son was sent to Buchenwald.

** Odd Nansen was arrested on the Ides of January, 1942, as I have written about here.

*** I have previously written about Ilse Weber here.

Thomas Buergenthal: Track Star?

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Those of you who have attended my presentations on From Day to Day know of the spectacularly successful career enjoyed by Thomas Buergenthal: Justice, International Court of Justice at The Hague; Judge, Inter-American Court of Human Rights; United Nations Human Rights Committee; United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador; Dean, Washington College of Law, American University; Elie Wiesel Award, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (the Museum’s highest honor).

Did you also know he was once a track star?

I have written (here, here, here and here) about the role of serendipity/coincidence in my journey with Odd Nansen’s diary.  Recently, while on a book tour, I gave a presentation in Somerset, NJ.  In the middle of my talk a gentleman in the rear of the audience stood and raised his hand.  I asked if he could hold his question until the end of my talk, when I would be happy to entertain it.  When my talk ended, I saw the hand go up again and immediately called upon him.

The gentleman did not have a question at all, but rather some information to share: he had attended the same high school in the early 1950s as Tom Buergenthal—Paterson East High School.  In fact, the two were classmates together.

Dr. Don Zimmerman, a retired dentist, then offered to retrieve his old high school yearbook.  Sure enough, there was Don’s picture in the yearbook—the Senior Mirror 1953—along with Tom’s.

Don Zimmerman, Then

And Now

As can be seen, each photo was accompanied by a short write-up, containing answers that each student must have been asked to complete.  The first, undoubtedly, was: “What do you want to do after leaving Paterson High School?”  Tom certainly fulfilled his goal: “To be a lawyer and travel.”  Another of the questionnaire’s inquiries must have been: “What is your pet peeve?”  Tom’s simple answer: “Questionnaires.”  We also learn that Tom was “well-liked” and “from Germany.”  Here’s Tom’s graduation photo.  Pay particular attention to the final entry in his write-up—none other than “From Day to Day.

Tom’s Yearbook Photo

In our post-presentation conversation, Don Zimmerman also remembered being on the track team with Tom.  When I later called Tom to relay my meeting with an old classmate, I asked him about his track experience.  Yes, Tom admitted, he was on the school’s track team for a bit—as a sprinter no less—but soon realized that there were other more talented runners in the student body.

Nevertheless, he admitted, he did once win third place—in the 100-yard dash—in a school track meet.

Then Tom chuckled, and rather wryly observed, “Imagine what I might have been able to do if I had had all my toes.”

The parallel lives of Thomas Buergenthal and Anne Frank

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Seventy-five years ago today (August 2, 1944), Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz, the largest and most lethal concentration camp the Nazis ever built, and the symbolic heart of the Holocaust.  Tom was immediately separated from his mother Gerda—thereafter he was to see her only once, through the wire, before she was transported to Ravensbrück, and they were not to be reunited until December 1946.  Buergenthal lived in Auschwitz for a time with his father Mundek until he, too, was transported—first to Sachsenhausen (there is no record that he ever crossed paths with Odd Nansen) and then to Buchenwald, where he succumbed to pneumonia in January 1945.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

There are a number of striking parallels between the lives of Tom Buergenthal and Anne Frank

It was two days after Tom’s arrival at Auschwitz (August 4, 1944) that Anne, age 15, was arrested along with her family and four others who had been in hiding for over two years in Amsterdam.

Anne Frank

Although Anne lived most of her childhood in Holland and Tom in Czechoslovakia, Anne’s parents and Tom’s mother were all German, all (along with Tom’s father, born in Galicia) having fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Within a month of Anne’s arrest, she was also transported to Auschwitz, arriving September 3, 1944.  Upon arrival, she was separated from her father. Again, there is no knowing if Tom and Anne were ever even close to each other in the sprawling camp that held more than 150,000 prisoners at its height.  What we do know is that Anne contracted scabies in Auschwitz, and Tom, having been selected for the gas chamber, was temporarily housed with others in a barracks for prisoners with scabies until a sufficiently large group could be assembled for the crematorium.  (Miraculously, he survived this experience, another instance when he would prove to be “ein Glückskind,” a lucky child.)

In late October or early November, 1944, around the time Tom lost his father to the transports, Anne, along with her older sister Margot,  was also transported, to the Bergen-Belsen camp, located approximately 40 miles south of Hamburg.  Bergen-Belsen was unsanitary and overcrowded, subject to epidemics of infectious diseases like typhus and typhoid fever.  When Auschwitz was finally evacuated in late January, 1945, Tom was among the 60,000 or so prisoners involved in the infamous Death March.  In late February or early March, 1945, around the time Buergenthal and Odd Nansen were first meeting each other in the infirmary in Sachsenhausen, Anne died in Bergen-Belsen.  The exact date and exact cause of death will never be known.

Recently I addressed the students of my high school alma mater, and posed the counterfactual question: What if Odd Nansen had been in Bergen-Belsen instead of Sachsenhausen, and had met Anne Frank instead of Tom Buergenthal?  Or, conversely, what if Anne Frank had been sent to Sachsenhausen, and Tom sent to Bergen-Belsen instead? Could Odd Nansen have saved Anne Frank’s life the way he saved Tom’s?  Would Tom have been able to survive in Bergen-Belsen?

Certainly there were factors that helped Tom, not the least being the fact that, having lived first in a Jewish ghetto in Kielce, and then in various work camps before arriving in Auschwitz, meant that he had “a relatively long period of survival training. Who knows whether I would have survived had I arrived in Auschwitz from a normal middle-class environment and immediately had to face brutal camp conditions.”  Anne, on the other hand, was spared Tom’s “gradual immersion into hell.”

But the key difference, I believe, was Odd Nansen.  Tom writes: “I realized that Mr. Nansen had probably saved my life [in Sachsenhausen’s infirmary, where Tom was convalescing following amputation of frostbitten several toes] by periodically bribing the orderly in charge of our barracks . . . to keep my name off the list of ‘terminally ill’ patients, which the SS guards demanded every few weeks ‘to make room for other prisoners.’”

Anne had no such person in Bergen-Belsen to help her through her crucible.  Had she survived, we might have celebrated her 90th birthday this past June 12.  Anne was bright, perceptive, and an extremely talented writer.  What more might she have accomplished during her lifetime? We’ll never know.  On the other hand, we do know that Tom Buergenthal had a wonderfully productive career promoting human rights, a career that culminated as a judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague (2000—2010).

Buergenthal at the International Court of Justice at The Hague

If nothing else, Odd Nansen’s life shows us how just one humane person can help in tikkun olam–repairing the world.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • March 12, 2020: Renaissance Institute, Notre Dame of Maryland University, Baltimore, MD [POSTPONED]
  • March 13, 2020: Sage Academy of Lifelong Learning, Goucher Collge, Baltimore, MD [POSTPONED]
  • March 26, 2020: The Standard Club, Chicago, IL [POSTPONED]
  • March 26, 2020: Illinois Holocaust Museum, Skokie, IL [POSTPONED]
  • April 16, 2020: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway [POSTPONED]
  • April 26, 2020: Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago, IL
  • April 26, 2020: Hidden Children, Chicago, IL
  • April 27, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • April 28, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • April 29, 2020: Sun City Huntley, Huntley, IL [POSTPONED]
  • May 7, 2020: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 14, 2020: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND (Gyda-Varden Lodge)
  • May 15, 2020: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • May 16, 2020: Sons of Norway, Red Wing, MN (Lauris Norstad Lodge)
  • May 17, 2002: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • May 18, 2020: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • May 19, 2020: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • May 19, 2020: The Waters of Plymouth, Plymouth, MN
  • May 19, 2020: Sons of Norway, Austin, MN (Storting Lodge)
  • May 28, 2020: Augsburg Lutheran, Baltimore, MD
  • May 29-31, 2020: Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 2, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • June 3, 2020: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • June 4, 2020: The Adult School, Bernardsville, NJ
  • June 7, 2020: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Organge, CT
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


"Your presentation was outstanding, and the audience was captivated by your deep and touching involvement in this amazing web of World War history, intrigue, and tragedy. Your deep understanding of the Nansen/Buergenthal connection really helped to bring history alive for our members."

Thomas Huber, President
Life Long Learning at Sun City Carolina Lakes

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