Thomas Buergenthal, who said his survival in a Nazi death camp when he was 10 equipped him to become a human rights lawyer and venerable World Court judge, died Monday at his Miami home. He was 89 years old.
His death was confirmed by his son Alan Buergenthal.
Judge Buergenthal and his parents were transported from a Jewish ghetto in occupied Poland to Auschwitz, where Tommy, as he was called, was believed to be among the youngest survivors. He also survived a three-day death march to Sachsenhausen, Germany, where he was liberated by Soviet troops months later.
His father and grandparents died in the Holocaust.
The ordeal, he wrote in “A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy” (2007), prepared him “to be a better human rights lawyer, if only because I understood, not only intellectually but also emotionally, what it is like to be a victim of human rights violations”.
“I could, after all, feel it in my bones,” she added.
Judge Buergenthal, who settled in the United States after the war, was appointed by Costa Rica as a judge at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where he became an outspoken critic of Washington’s complicity in so-called “dirty wars” against leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
He served on that seven-member tribunal, established under the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, from 1979 to 1991 and was its president from 1989 to 1994.
During his tenure, the court jointly investigated servicemen accused of killing thousands of dissident civilians. In 1993, he was one of three members of a United Nations commission that held Salvadoran military officers responsible for some of the country’s best-known dirty war crimes, including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador , the rape and murder of four American clergymen in 1980, and the killing of six Jesuit priests in 1989.
Judge Buergenthal helped devise a new legal premise for prosecuting cases involving the disappearance of thousands of political dissidents. The court ruled that if a missing individual matched the profile of other missing persons, the burden of proof rested on local governments to prove they were not responsible.
From 2000 to 2010, he represented the United States at the 15-member International Court of Justice in The Hague, the highest judicial body of the United Nations. There she extraordinarily launched the single dissenting vote when his colleagues said in an advisory opinion in 2004 that parts of the Israeli separation barrier that spanned the occupied West Bank violated international law and should be razed.
He wrote that the court should have dismissed the case because it was too politically charged, and later said that the court should have evaluated each segment of the wall to determine which parts were or were not justified for defense purposes.
“The way I was going to look at the case, was to look at different segments of the wall and see if this segment is where Israel has the right to have a wall or missile protection,” he said in a 2015 interview published from the Human Rights Working Group in the 20th century. “Or when there was no other basis than to take land from the Palestinians.”
His decision, he added, did not reflect a lack of concern for Palestinian rights.
“I go out and say the settlements are illegal,” he said in the interview. “I point out that the suffering of the Palestinian people is something that is related to the settlements.”
In his memoir, Judge Buergenthal wrote that “my experience of the Holocaust had a very substantial impact on the human being that I became.”
“I’ve always believed that part of my human rights work was motivated in one way or another by the belief that the law could have been used to prevent what happened to us in the 1930s,” he said. “We have an obligation as survivors and we owe it to the people who have died to make sure these things don’t happen in other places.”
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, general counsel and associate executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, called Justice Buergenthal “fearless in defending the human and civil rights of all victims of persecution, oppression and crimes against humanity worldwide, and in doing everything in his power to provide them with at least a modicum of justice.”
Thomas Buergenthal was born on May 11, 1934 in Lubochna, Czechoslovakia to Mundek and Gerda (Silbergleit) Buergenthal. As Jews, they had fled Germany the year before and ran into a hotel. His father, born in Poland, had studied law and had worked as a banker.
After Germany broke up Czechoslovakia, the family fled to Poland, hoping to emigrate to Britain, but were trapped when war broke out and herded into a ghetto in Kielce. They were shipped to Auschwitz in August 1944.
Tommy was a lucky boy, Elie Wiesel wrote in the foreword to his memoir, because he had avoided scrutiny by Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who selected victims for the gas chambers, and because he had escaped another group of children doomed to death when he boldly announced in German to a commander that he was strong enough to work.
“I saw the fact that I survived as a victory, that we had won them,” said Judge Buergenthal United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2001.
As the Soviets advanced, Tommy and other inmates were driven west to Sachsenhausen, where he was released in April 1945. His father was killed in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Tommy was cared for by Polish soldiers and then placed in a Polish orphanage, which, in arranging to send him to Palestine, miraculously reconnected him with his mother. He was smuggled out of Eastern Europe and reunited with her in her hometown of Göttingen, Germany in December 1946.
In late 1951, when he was 17, his mother sent him to join his aunt, uncle, and cousin in New Jersey. Lui completed high school in Paterson and, to his surprise, since he was affiliated with a Christian denomination, he was offered a scholarship to Bethany College in West Virginia.
After graduating from Bethany in 1957, where he was recommended for a Rhodes Scholarship and became a U.S. citizen, he received a J.D. from New York University in 1960 and a J.D. and J.D. from Harvard Law School .
Justice Buergenthal wrote seminal books on international law; he was chairman of the American Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee from 1972 to 1974; president of the Washington College of Law of the American University of Washington from 1980 to 1985; He has held grant professorships at the University of Texas at Austin, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Emory University at Atlanta, where he was also director of the Carter Center’s human rights program.
Justice Buergenthal served on the United Nations Truth Commission on El Salvador from 1992 to 1993, was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the International Olympic Committee’s Ethics Commission, and was Vice-President of the Tribunal for dormant account grievance resolution, which returned funds to Holocaust victims from bank accounts that had been seized by the Nazis.
He has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including, in 2016, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, the Federal Republic of Germany’s highest tribute to a person.
“For me,” said his son Alan, “this was Germany’s apology, which he accepted wholeheartedly.”
Besides Alan, he is survived by his wife, Marjorie (Bell) Buergenthal; two other sons, Robert and John; his stepchildren, Cristina De las Casas and Sebastian Dibos; and nine grandchildren.
Time can hide the past, if not heal the pain completely. Judge Buergenthal said he softened towards the Germans after the war. That “abstract hatred turns into the fact that they’re human beings,” he said. He also recalled in the 2015 interview returning to the death camp in 1991 for the first time.
“It wasn’t the place I remembered, because there was grass, there were birds flying,” she recalled. “In Auschwitz in my time, the smoke from the crematoria was such that no bird flew there. And no grass, it was mud. Infinite. And the air was filled with the stench of burning human bodies.
“That’s how the world covers everything,” he added. “The grass grows back and the flowers grow. Who cares what happened on that ground?
In 2005, when he joined other Sachsenhausen survivors to mark the 60th anniversary of their liberation, he recited a litany of massacres that have occurred since then, in Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur.
“Today,” he said, “‘never again’ often means ‘never again, until next time.'”