It is with deep sorrow that I write to inform you that my dear friend, Tom Buergenthal, died on Monday, May 29, 2023. He had just recently turned 89. Tom’s obituary can be found here.
I am currently at a loss for words, but will write more soon.
It is with deep sorrow that I write to inform you that my dear friend, Tom Buergenthal, died on Monday, May 29, 2023. He had just recently turned 89. Tom’s obituary can be found here.
I am currently at a loss for words, but will write more soon.
On this date in 1945, the Ohrdruf concentration camp was liberated. This is notable for three reasons:
FIRST: Thomas Buergenthal’s father Mundek died in Ohrdruf just weeks earlier, on January 15, 1945. Tom and Mundek were separated in Auschwitz in late October, 1944, when Mundek was moved to Sachsenhausen, arriving there on October 26, 1944. [Did Odd Nansen and Mundek Buergenthal ever cross paths in Sachsenhausen? That’s the subject for another post.] Three weeks later Mundek was moved yet again, to Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, arriving November 13, 1944. Two months later he was dead.
Mundek had displayed great resilience, courage, and resourcefulness in meeting, and overcoming, every challenge the Nazis presented him with for almost five and a half years—ever since September 1, 1939. That was when the train he, Tommy, and Tommy’s mother Gerda were riding on through Poland, on their way to freedom, was strafed by the invading Nazis. Mundek managed to keep his family alive in the Kielce Ghetto (which was later liquidated), and in two work camps outside Kielce (which were also later liquidated). If he had only been able to hold on for another 79 days, he, too, might have been liberated, and Tommy’s life utterly changed. His unfortunate death is yet one more of the countless tragedies of the Holocaust.
SECOND: Ohrdruf has the distinction of being the very first Nazi concentration camp liberated by the U.S. Army—units of the 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 4th Armored Division, and the 89th Infantry Division all participated.
The camp had only been established in November 1944, initially as an independent site, and later as a subcamp of Buchenwald, located 30 miles to the east. It was established to supply forced labor to construct a rail line to a proposed communications center. (Neither the communications center nor the rail line was ever completed.)
Conditions at Ohrdruf were particularly brutal: 14-hour workdays, strenuous physical labor, insufficient food, clothing, and medical supplies. It is estimated that 3,000 of the camp’s roughly 10,000 prisoners died of exhaustion or disease during its short existence.
The camp was evacuated on April 1, 1945, just ahead of the advancing Allied armies, when SS guards initiated a death march of the remaining prisoners to Buchenwald. Those deemed too ill or too weak to undertake the trip were murdered and their bodies burned in a giant pyre.
THIRD: The conditions in Ohrdruf which greeted the liberating U.S. forces were so appalling that General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces in Europe, personally visited the camp on April 12, 1945, accompanied by Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley. In his postwar memoir, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower wrote: “[On April 12] I saw my first horror camp. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.”
In a subsequent cable to General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Eisenhower further elaborated: “The things I saw beggar description. . . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room . . . George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’” (emphasis added)
Is it any wonder that Mundek Buergenthal, who had survived the Kielce Ghetto, the Arbeitslager, the Henryków factory complex, Auschwitz, and Sachsenhausen, was unable to survive Ohrdruf?
In a practice that was to be repeated in subsequent camp liberations, German citizens from the nearby town of Ohrdruf were forced to view the camp and help bury the dead. Following the tour, the town’s mayor and his wife both hanged themselves.
It has been reported that, after seeing Ohrdruf, Eisenhower was heard to remark:
“We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.”
On this date in 1922 the Permanent Court of International Justice, a/k/a the World Court, officially opened. The need for a supranational body to resolve disputes between nations had been recognized—and proposed—as long ago as 1305. Nevertheless, it took the carnage of the First World War to provide the impetus for actually establishing such a body. Article 14 of the Covenant of the League of Nations allowed the League to set up just such an international tribunal in an attempt to resolve future disputes short of war.
Who took note of this important event? Certainly not Tom Buergenthal, who wouldn’t be born for another 12 years. Probably not Tom’s parents either. His mother, Gerda, was only 10 years-old at the time, living with her parents in Göttingen, Germany. His father, Mundek, 20-years old, was just embarking on a promising career as a banker in Berlin. Odd Nansen, the same age as Mundek (they were born only 15 days apart in 1901) was a mere student in 1922 as well. The Permanent Court of Justice may nevertheless have come up as a topic of conversation at the Nansen dinner table. After all, Odd’s father Fridtjof Nansen was an ardent supporter of the League of Nations, serving as a delegate to the General Assembly and as its first High Commissioner for Refugees. William L. Shirer once recalled seeing “the old gentleman, with his thick white hair and his lively eyes, stamping around the palace of the League of Nations in Geneva and forcing the harried statesmen of the world to heed him and his endeavors to find homes for the world’s homeless.” Much of Fridtjof’s work for the League of Nations would result in his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize ten months later, in December 1922.
Now, fast forward exactly 23 years, to February 15, 1945. Tom Buergenthal has arrived in Sachsenhausen after a hellish death march from Auschwitz, and has had several of his frostbitten toes amputated as a consequence. Odd Nansen is in the 38th month of captivity. On February 16, 1945, Nansen notes the following in his diary:
“A little Jewish boy, not ten years old, is in the Revier. He comes from Auschwitz. His legs were frostbitten and several toes have been amputated. At Auschwitz he was errand boy in the crematorium. He relates that among other things that the most they could take in the gas chamber at a time was two thousand, and then they used two boxes, he said. ‘But how do you know that?’ ‘Why, because I got the boxes,’ said the child.”
Whether Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal met on the 16th, the date of Nansen’s diary entry, or whether he was recording what had occurred the previous day, February 15, is unclear. What is clear is that, following that first meeting, according to Tom’s memoir A Lucky Child, “Mr. Nansen. . . probably saved my life by periodically bribing the orderly in charge of our barracks with cigarettes and tobacco to keep my name off the lists of ‘terminally ill’ patients which the SS guards demanded every few weeks ‘to make room for other inmates.’”
And of course we know that Tom’s life was indeed saved in Sachsenhausen through Nansen’s efforts, and in that time Tom would become one of the very few jurists to ever serve on the International Court of Justice at the Hague, the tribunal established in April 1946 by the United Nations to succeed the Permanent Court of International Justice. I’ve written about another uncanny coincidence in dates regarding Tom’s ultimate career on the World Court here. Whether all these developments are simply coincidences, or something more, we’ll never know, but it certainly appears that Tom’s future service on the World Court was just meant to be.
On this day in 1951 Thomas Buergenthal first set foot on American soil. He was 17 years-old. During a good part of those 17 years Tom had successfully defeated the Nazis’ best efforts to murder him, whether through the liquidation of the Kielce Ghetto, internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau, or participation in the Auschwitz Death March.
But all that was now behind Tom, and he was eager to start a new life in America, his new home, a country that had been so instrumental in vanquishing the scourge of Nazism, and thus ending the suffering of so many.
One thing Tom most likely never imagined in his wildest dreams back in 1951 was that seventy-one years later anti-Semitism would be alive and well in America, and that a former president of the United States, who is also a current candidate for a future presidency, would be entertaining virulent anti-Semites in his home.
My purpose here is not to dwell on the manifold moral failings of The Former Guy, but to ask each of us to look in the mirror. In doing so I would ask each of us to reflect on part of a blog I originally wrote five years ago:
In a fascinating, insightful and highly readable new book, Why: Explaining the Holocaust, author Peter Hayes concludes his inquiry with three “broad implications for all citizens.” Second among these is that “the Holocaust illustrates the fundamental importance and difficulty of individual courage and imagination.” Certainly, Odd Nansen possessed the requisite courage and imagination. But Hayes goes on to remark that bravery alone is not enough: “wit, wiliness, shrewd judgment, persistence, and creativity in challenging evil are also indispensable.” Again, Nansen’s diary is replete with examples of these traits as well.
Hayes’ book is broken into a series of chapters, each of which addresses one question central to the Holocaust: Why the Jews? Why the Germans? Why murder? Etc. One question Hayes does not tackle (probably because it would require its own book) is why some people became villains, and yet others, like Nansen, became heroes.
When we pontificate today that “we must never forget the Holocaust” or “we must never let it happen again,” implicit in our statement is the firm belief that we would never participate in such evil; we would never support a program like the Nazis. And yet millions of Germans, Austrians, and Sudeten Czechs joined the Nazi Party, and millions more collaborated with them in occupied and allied countries.
Perhaps—perhaps—one can understand the allure which the Nazi ideology (and jobs) held for the down-and-out mechanic or the failed farmer (which is what Heinrich Himmler, the greatest mass murderer of all time, was before the war).
But how could educated German doctors, subject to the Hippocratic Oath (“do no harm”), willingly engage in the so-called T4, or Euthanasia Action, killing the disabled (71,000–80,000 murdered by August 1941, and many more after that as well)? How could “many eager lawyers,” dedicated to the rule of law, willingly act “as middleman in the sale of Jews’ assets, and the numerous willing graspers for their medical and legal practices, their artwork, their houses and apartments, their furniture and carpets”? How could German professors, leading some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, permit the Nazi minister of education to order them: “From now on, it is not up to you to decide whether something is true, but whether it is in the interests of the National Socialist Revolution”?
So, how could we have withstood the subtle coercion exercised by, and the enticing blandishments offered by, the Nazis had we lived in that time and place?
Hayes does provide a significant clue, when he writes, “Resistance is never easy and seldom comfortable, and compassion has to be practiced in order to hold up when challenged.” (emphasis mine). The Odd Nansen depicted in his diary (1942–1945) is the same Odd Nansen who voluntarily put his career on hold in 1936 to form a relief organization for stateless Jewish refugees. He undertook the task knowing it would be difficult, frustrating and often daunting, especially in the face of indifference and official governmental anti-Semitism. Is it surprising, then, that Nansen managed to survive the crucible of World War II with his humanity intact?
If today we flatter ourselves that we can be indifferent to suffering in our midst, if we can ignore the plight of those less fortunate, or of powerless minorities (like the Jews of the 1930s), if we can turn our backs on the lessons of the beatitudes, will we really be ready, if and when we are ever tested in a conflict as horrible as the Holocaust? The lessons of history suggest otherwise.
Today is Anne Frank’s birthday. Had she lived, she would be 93 years old. The exact date and cause of her death are unknown, although it is now believed that she succumbed in late February, 1945, probably to a disease such as typhus.
Anne, her family, and the other inhabitants of the secret annex in Amsterdam were discovered and arrested on August 4, 1944. Thereafter she was sent to Westerbork, then Auschwitz (sharing the camp with Thomas Buergenthal who was also there at the time) and finally, in October 1944, to Bergen-Belsen.
Despite considerable differences in age and experience, there are numerous parallels between Odd Nansen and Anne Frank. Most obviously, they were both famous diarists. Moreover, their diaries were not a mere afterthought, they were central to their respective lives. When the Frank family received a call-up notice and decided to go into hiding, “I began to pack some of our most vital belongings into a school satchel [and] the first thing I put in was this diary,” wrote Anne. Similarly, Nansen writes in his Foreword “Paper and writing materials were the last things I put in my knapsack before going off with the district sheriff and his henchmen.” Anne describes as one of her “worst moments” the time her family discussed burning the diary, lest it fall into the wrong hands and implicate their helpers; Nansen called his diary “such a blessed help to me, such a comfort.”
Both diaries survived by the slimmest of margins. Nansen faced the constant threat of detection in prison, and relied on all sorts of channels while in Norway to smuggle the diary pages to his wife, including, at one point, a Wehrmacht driver that even he called “ungovernable [and] frankly dangerous.” Anne’s diary, seemingly safely hidden in a briefcase, was unceremoniously and unwittingly dumped on the floor of the annex on the day of her arrest by a Gestapo official who wanted to use the briefcase to collect any family jewelry and cash he could find in the apartment. After the Gestapo left, Miep Gies collected everything she could find on the floor for safekeeping. As a result, as Francine Prose has pointed out in her book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, “There is no way of knowing if any, or how much, of Anne’s writing was lost.”
This was not the only danger both diaries faced. Upon his evacuation from Germany (along with his secret diary) at the hands of the Swedish Red Cross, Nansen heard, to his dismay, that the prisoners’ every possession, without exception, was burned upon arrival in Denmark, presumably to prevent the spread of disease. Miep Gies, holding Anne’s diary until her return, later wrote that, had she read the diaries “she might have felt compelled to burn them, out of concern for her colleagues.”
Once the war was over, both diaries had difficulty getting into print. Nansen’s diary was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to, before being taken up by Dreyers Forlag. Similarly, the manuscript collated and prepared by Anne’s father Otto Frank was rejected by every Dutch editor to whom it was submitted.
Once finally published, Nansen’s work was faster out of the gate, becoming a bestseller in Norway when it appeared in 1947; that same year Anne’s book had a small initial print run (1500 copies) in Holland, and was out of print by 1950. Nansen also had an easier time breaking into the U.S. market; by 1949 an English translation was available through G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Anne’s diary, on the other hand, received a skeptical reception. One major publishing house called it “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” The book was already on Doubleday’s reject pile when an assistant to the director of its Paris bureau picked it up in 1952, started reading, couldn’t stop, and thus rescued it.
When both diaries ultimately appeared in America, they each met with an enthusiastic response. Meyer Levin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was smitten by Anne’s writing; it “simply bubbles with amusement, love [and] discovery” he wrote. The New Yorker said of Nansen’s diary: “[I]t will surely rank among the most compelling documents to come out of the recent [war].”
Even the moneys generated by the books have followed a similar course. According to Prose, Otto Frank decided to channel some the book’s profits into human rights causes. Odd Nansen chose to give all the proceeds of the German edition of From Day to Day to German refugees. And one hundred percent of the speaking fees and royalties from the sale of the new edition of From Day to Day are earmarked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies .
Of course, the subsequent publication trajectories of The Diary of Anne Frank and From Day to Day have been much different. Millions of copies of The Diary of Anne Frank are now in print. As Prose explains, “Good fortune and serendipity appeared, at every stage, to arrange Anne’s diary’s American success.” Out of print, and all but forgotten in America for over 65 years, perhaps good fortune and serendipity will someday smile equally on Nansen’s diary, and it will join the ranks of seminal works on the Holocaust, along with Anne’s diary, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Most importantly, now that From Day to Day is back in print, let us hope that it will also provide the same inspiration that Francine Prose attributes to Anne’s eloquent diary: “Anne Frank’s strong and unique and beautiful voice is still being heard by readers who may someday be called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion. Guided by a conscience awakened by [the diary] one . . . may yet opt for humanity and choose life over death.”
The above is a revised and updated version of a blog which first appeared on June 12, 2016.
Today marks Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. We vow never to forget, and never to let it happen again.
Today also happens to be the 77th anniversary of the final entry in Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day:
“What on earth am I to write? It’s as impossible today as on all the other days that have passed in one long whirl of unreality and fairy tale. I am no longer in Germany! I am in Denmark, at a country house; Møgelkær is its name, outside Hortens, and I’ve already been here more than a week! It’s unbelievable. And what have I not experienced in that week? Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe. Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”
Only a week earlier Tom Buergenthal experienced his own liberation, although he approached it much more cautiously:
“I saw some soldiers get off a military vehicle and walk towards the center of the Appellplatz [roll call plaza] in the direction of the big gong. They did not look like the SS and wore uniforms I had never seen before. But I was still afraid to move. Then I heard the sound of the camp’s gong. One of the soldiers was striking it as hard as he could, while another was yelling: ‘Hitler kaput! Hitler kaput!’ They threw their caps in the air and performed what looked like a wild dance.
“The Soviet soldiers who first entered Sachsenhausen had told us that we were free, that we had been liberated. I could not quite grasp what that meant. I had never really thought of liberation as such. My sole concern had been to survive from one day to the next.
“After the Russians had left, all of us who had greeted them around the camp gong started for the SS kitchen. I followed very slowly, some fifteen or twenty yards behind, always ready to take cover. I still could not believe this supposed liberation was real and not some trick concocted by the SS. They probably staged this liberation in order to draw us out of our hiding places.
“Maybe we really have been liberated, I thought as I climbed on the desk and pulled down Hitler’s picture. I threw it on the floor, shattering the glass and the frame. I spat on it and stepped on his face so hard that my feet began to hurt, but still I went on until the picture was torn to pieces.”
For both Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal the last week of April marked the start of yet another journey before liberation would mean anything. In Nansen’s case, it would still be several weeks before he was reunited with his family in Oslo (June 9, 1945). Tommy’s purgatory would last much longer: more than 18 months before he was miraculously reunited with his mother (December 6, 1946).
Recently I was laid up for a while with a (thankfully mild) case of COVID. I decided to spend the time curled up with a good history book, and I chose Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 by one of my favorite authors, Max Hastings. If there is one theme that runs throughout the book, it was the German people’s collective belief, until the very final days of the war, and despite all evidence to the contrary, that Germany would still somehow emerge victorious. As Hastings writes:
“At the summit of the Nazi leadership, fantasy still held sway. At one of Hitler’s conferences in February , [Albert] Speer drew [Admiral] Dönitz aside and sought to persuade him that the military situation was now hopeless, that steps must be taken to mitigate the catastrophe facing Germany. ‘I am here to represent the Navy,’ responded the Grand-Admiral curtly. ‘All the rest is not my business. The Führer knows what he is doing.’ Even at a much humbler level in the nation’s hierarchy, fantastic delusions persisted. After Cologne fell [early March 1945], Sergeant Otto Cranz . . . was surprised to hear one of his comrades insist mechanically, yet with utter conviction: ‘My Führer must have a plan. Defeat is impossible!’”
Indeed, Hastings is at something of a loss to explain how Josef Goebbels’s propaganda could “pervert[ ] the reasoning processes of one of the best-educated societies on earth.” As of 1939 German doctors, chemists and physicists had garnered far more Nobel Prizes in their respective fields than any other country in the world. German culture was the envy of the world.
And yet, lest we scoff at the insanity described by Hastings, let us remember that people today deny the Holocaust—I’ve met them; that people deny the Sandy Hook school shootings—I’ve met them (and Alex Jones has yet to face the consequences of his actions almost 10 years later); people deny the efficacy of vaccines (my wife and I, fully vaccinated and boosted, recovered quickly. A friend in our town—educated, successful—who was militantly anti-mask and anti-vaccine, was found dead in his home last fall, Ivermectin by his bedside); and the list goes on.
As Primo Levi was at pains to remind us:
“It happened. Therefore, it can happen again.”
But it can only happen if we, like the majority of Germans in 1945, lose sight of the truth.
Let’s face it: 2021 was not the year most of us will remember fondly. The fears, the disrupted plans, the false dawns. Yes, 2021 is best left behind as soon as possible.
But even at the end of a bad year there are always a few bright spots worth noting.
I. A Mother and Child Reunion
Seventy-five years ago today Tom Buergenthal, age 12, set eyes on his mother for the first time in over two years—two years during which he had no idea whether his mother was even alive. A simple boy’s faith had sustained him when the war finally ended:
“Of course, I was happy the war was over and that we had been liberated. But when the soldiers spoke of their families and of home, I was reminded that I did not know where my home was. I had no home without my parents, and I did not know where they were. I was sure that if I had survived, they must have survived too and that they would find me!”
But as time passed, that hope became less and less tenable; if his parents were still alive, where were they, and why hadn’t they found him yet? His mother, for her part, hadn’t given up looking for Tom—after all, wasn’t he ein Glückskind, a lucky child? But the challenge of locating one small boy in war-ravaged Europe was almost insuperable.
As I have recently written (here), it was Tom’s decision to emigrate to Palestine, born of despair over his parents’ unknown status, that provided the key to his ultimate discovery and reunion with his mother, on December 29, 1946.
When Tom first learned that his mother was alive, earlier in the fall of 1946, and that the two would soon be reunited, he wrote those most poignant words:
“’She is alive!’ I kept repeating to myself. It was the happiest moment of my life. I began to cry and laugh all at once, casting off the self-control and tough-guy attitude I sought to cultivate at the orphanage. I had a mother, and that meant that I could be a child again.”
II. It’s a Wonderful Life.
This December also marks the 75th anniversary of one of my favorite movies: “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I’ve written about the movie, and the power of serendipity, before (here). It took George Bailey a visit from the angel Clarence to finally realize the important impact he had had on the lives of others. I’m not sure if Odd Nansen ever wondered what impact his life—now perpetuated through the words of his inimitable diary—had on others. I hope not. His humanity in the crucible of a concentration camp has undoubtedly inspired others—myself included—to follow his example. As Tom Buergenthal once told me, Nansen “not only saved my life, but also taught me to forgive.”
III. Sixth Distribution Goes Out
Recently, as is my yearly custom since From Day to Day first reappeared in print, I donated all my 2021 royalties and speaking fees: 50% to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and 50% to HL-senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies in Oslo. To date these donations cumulatively total $22,369.04.
IV. Looking Ahead
Back on March 15, 2020, at the start of the pandemic, I compared the (rather minor) dislocations to our everyday life caused by COVID to the infinitely more terrible experiences of people like Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal (here)—and hoped their experiences could inspire us to overcome whatever challenges we might face.
Thus I think it appropriate to end this blog with the words Odd Nansen wrote on January 2, 1944, and the hope he was able to muster in a much darker place:
“[W]e bid it welcome, and once more fix our hopes, our burning wishes, and our ache of longing on the new year. . . . [A]ll things considered there seems every reason to take a rather more cheerful view of things after all.”
Postscript: For all of you assembling your list of New Year’s Resolutions (lose weight, read more, argue less, look younger, exercise more, be smarter, etc.) let me suggest one more: “I’ll write that review of From Day to Day on Amazon that I promised Tim back in. . . .“ You’ll be glad you did! And for those who have already done so—Tusen Takk! (A Thousand Thanks!)
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.
…….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.
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  . . . 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 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.