Posts tagged United Nations

Tom Buergenthal and the World Court

Share

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.

April 22, 1945: Sachsenhausen Liberated

Share

Today marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.  I can’t think of a better way to observe it than to republish the post I wrote one year ago:

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

Seventy-five years ago today, Polish and Russian armed forces liberated Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and with it, Thomas Buergenthal.

Tom was nineteen days shy of his 11th birthday.  He had been a captive, in one form or another, of the Nazis since early 1940, when he and his family were herded into the Kielce Ghetto in Poland.  Tom was then just over five and a half years of age, meaning that, by April 1945, he had spent approximately half of his entire existence on earth as a prisoner.

And Tom had known fear even before the war began.  He sensed his mother’s trepidation when the two of them were ordered to the local police station in Zilina, Czechoslovakia in early 1939.  The family had fled to Zilina from their home in Ľubochňa, having been dispossessed of the hotel Tom’s father owned and ran there.  The family now fled Zilina as well, and Tom had to sleep in a ditch when trapped in the no-man’s-land between the Czech and Polish borders. He was not yet five years old.

And now Tom was free.

But what did freedom mean to a ten-year-old child?

Where were his parents?  He had last seen his father, Mundek, in October 1944, when he and Mundek were separated while in Auschwitz, and his father sent off to other camps (including, for a short time, Sachsenhausen), before succumbing to pneumonia in Buchenwald in January 1945.  He had seen his mother, Gerda, only once in Auschwitz, around the same time as his father was taken away.  Tom spotted her through the wire—thin, her hair shorn, tear covered—before she too was sent away to another camp: Ravensbrück.

How would Tom find them?  Where would he look?  How could he even begin?  Another year and a half would pass before Tom and his mother were miraculously reunited (movingly told in his memoir, A Lucky Child).

On April 22, 1945, then, what were Tom’s prospects?  Almost eleven, and yet still illiterate, Tom had had only one type of schooling—the school of survival.  He had done well in that school, a necessary experience for what lay ahead, but hardly sufficient.

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

Meanwhile, on the exact same date—April 22, 1945—but a world away, delegates from 46 countries began gathering in San Francisco to commence, in the words of William L. Shirer, “the difficult job of setting up the machinery of peace,” the United Nations.  And for all its shortcomings, the delegates did get some things right.  “[I]t will give us a better world organization than was the old League at Geneva,” wrote Shirer, “[T]here is to be an International Court of Justice, functioning as the judicial organ of the United Nations.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is a phrase that goes back to an anti-slavery sermon in 1853, and has been used by many since, including Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Who could have known, back in that chaotic, uncertain world of April 1945—certainly not the delegates, and least of all Tom Buergenthal—that one day, six and a half decades later, this newly freed child prisoner would become a distinguished member of that same International Court of Justice.

I salute you, my dear friend Tom, and the wonderful new life of yours that began, however fitfully, 75 years ago today.

Thomas Buergenthal

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

Share

Seventy-five years ago today, Polish and Russian armed forces liberated Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and with it, Thomas Buergenthal.

Tom was nineteen days shy of his 11th birthday.  He had been a captive, in one form or another, of the Nazis since early 1940, when he and his family were herded into the Kielce Ghetto in Poland.  Tom was then just over five and a half years of age, meaning that, by April 1945, he had spent approximately half of his entire existence on earth as a prisoner.

And Tom had known fear even before the war began.  He sensed his mother’s trepidation when the two of them were ordered to the local police station in Zilina, Czechoslovakia in early 1939.  The family had fled to Zilina from their home in Ľubochňa, having been dispossessed of the hotel Tom’s father owned and ran there.  The family now fled Zilina as well, and Tom had to sleep in a ditch when trapped in the no-man’s-land between the Czech and Polish borders. He was not yet five years old.

And now Tom was free.

But what did freedom mean to a ten-year-old child?

Where were his parents?  He had last seen his father, Mundek, in October 1944, when he and Mundek were separated while in Auschwitz, and his father sent off to other camps (including, for a short time, Sachsenhausen), before succumbing to pneumonia in Buchenwald in January 1945.  He had seen his mother, Gerda, only once in Auschwitz, around the same time as his father was taken away.  Tom spotted her through the wire—thin, her hair shorn, tear covered—before she too was sent away to another camp: Ravensbrück.

How would Tom find them?  Where would he look?  How could he even begin?  Another year and a half would pass before Tom and his mother were miraculously reunited (movingly told in his memoir, A Lucky Child).

On April 22, 1945, then, what were Tom’s prospects?  Almost eleven, and yet still illiterate, Tom had had only one type of schooling—the school of survival.  He had done well in that school, a necessary experience for what lay ahead, but hardly sufficient.

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

Meanwhile, on the exact same date—April 22, 1945—but a world away, delegates from 46 countries began gathering in San Francisco to commence, in the words of William L. Shirer, “the difficult job of setting up the machinery of peace,” the United Nations.  And for all its shortcomings, the delegates did get some things right.  “[I]t will give us a better world organization than was the old League at Geneva,” wrote Shirer, “[T]here is to be an International Court of Justice, functioning as the judicial organ of the United Nations.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is a phrase that goes back to an anti-slavery sermon in 1853, and has been used by many since, including Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Who could have known, back in that chaotic, uncertain world of April 1945—certainly not the delegates, and least of all Tom Buergenthal—that one day, six and a half decades later, this newly freed child prisoner would become a distinguished member of that same International Court of Justice.

I salute you, my dear friend Tom, and the wonderful new life of yours that began, however fitfully, 75 years ago today.

Thomas Buergenthal

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • March 20, 2023: The Woodlands, Greenville, SC
  • March 28, 2023: Shalom Club, E. Windsor, NJ
  • March 29, 2023: Kemmerer Library, Harding Twp., NJ
  • March 30, 2023: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT
  • March 31, 2023: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT
  • May 15, 2023: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway
  • May 31, 2023: Osher Lifelong Learning, Clemson, SC
  • August 7, 2023: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ
  • December 10, 2023: Sons of Norway, Myrtle Beach, SC
  • * = Virtual

People are talking


"Timothy Boyce captivated a larger than usual, attentive and appreciative audience with his spellbinding presentation of Odd Nansen and his World War II diary. He brilliantly demonstrated Odd Nansen’s will to survive while also helping others. A remarkable tale presented in an informative and fascinating way by a truly engaging speaker."

- Audun Gythfeldt, President
Sons of Norway Nor-Bu Lodge, Rockaway, NJ

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2023 >
March
SMTWHFS
   1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031 
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history