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.