Judge who knows all about suffering

HE has become one of the most authoritative figures on human rights in the world. And Judge Thomas Buergenthal is well equipped to feel the violation of people more than most.

He lived through the Holocaust as a child, surviving Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, as well as the ghetto of Kielce in Poland.

"I know what it is like to suffer - I feel it in my bones," the 75-year-old told me.

Judge Buergenthal tells his story in A Lucky Child, which was released in paperback yesterday.

He was born in Lubochna, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia) to German-born Gerda and father Mundek, who was from Polish Galicia.

Mundek had moved to Lubochna in 1933 to escape the rise of the Nazis.

Gerda met him when she was sent there by her parents, who lived in the German city of Göttingen, as they were worried about her relationship with a non-Jewish boy.

But their world was shattered when Slovakian soldiers who had sided with Hitler took over their hotel in late 1938.

Now a judge at the International Court in The Hague, he said: "We fled to the nearby city of Zilina and lived there until I was five.

"Then my father took us across the border into Poland."

The family had planned to board a train heading for a boat that would have taken them to England after they secured passes through the local British counsel.

But that was on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland.

The Buergenthals joined other Jewish refugees and walked north to the city of Kielce, where they were put into the ghetto.

He had no - or little - childhood. He was in Kielce from the age of eight-10 when he was sent to Auschwitz with his parents.

What kind of horrific memories must Judge Buergenthal hold from that time?

He saw the Gestapo shoot two young looters as they begged for their lives and when the Buergenthals were sent to a labour camp, his adoptive "brother and sister" - two children saved by his mother - were wrestled out of her arms by soldiers and killed.

"It all seems like a surreal experience when I think about it now," he recalled. Judge Buergenthal does not mind speaking about his childhood, but he admits there are certain memories which he detaches himself from.

He said: "Most of the things that happened from a young age did not seem abnormal to me.

"I was young, after all, so probably did not grasp everything that was going on."

He dodged death a number of times while at Auschwitz and was once selected for death and herded away.

However, the Nazis decided it wasn't worth firing up the crematorium, so he ended up on the Auschwitz death march.

Judge Buergenthal ended up at Sachsenhausen and it was there that he was liberated by the Polish army.

He remembered: "One of their units took me back to Poland and I was put into a Jewish orphanage. I did not know where my mother and father were."

Amazingly, his mother tracked him down in 1946, thanks mainly to the Jewish Agency (who had planned on sending him to then-Palestine).

Judge Buergenthal explained: "Writing about seeing my mother again was one of the hardest times I had writing the book.

"It was an extremely emotional time and it made me emotional when I was writing about it."

He and his mother found out that Mundek Buergenthal had died at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria.

Gerda remarried and went to live in Italy while her young son finished some of his education in Germany. He moved to America in 1951 and lived with relatives in New Jersey.

He continued: "What a wonderful country America is.

"I was made to feel so welcome, although some people were not interested in what had happened to me and millions of others, probably because they felt they had not done enough to help us."

Later studying at the New York University Law School and Harvard Law School, Judge Buergenthal became a specialist in international law and human rights.

"My experiences probably drew me into that particular field - it was the one area that interested me the most," he revealed.

A professor of law at the George Washington Law School and dean of the Washington College of Law, Judge Buergenthal served on various United Nations human rights' committees, including a truth commission after the civil war in El Salvador.

He does not have a definitive answer as to why people still commit war crimes and genocide more than 60 years after the worst one in history.

"I think people who live in poor conditions and in tremendous poverty are more susceptible and it makes it easier for dictators to carry out their crimes," he explained.

He has been back to Germany and admits he is "tremendously impressed" by Holocaust education and history there.

He also went back to Kielce in Poland, but admitted that he could not wait to leave as "the local people were looking at us all the time".

Appointed to the International Court at The Hague in 2000, Judge Buergenthal has had to excuse himself from cases where he felt he could not remain impartial, particularly where Israel or Holocaust denial is concerned.

But some cases have made painful memories come flooding back.

Judge Buergenthal, who lives in The Hague, said: "I was involved in the case of an alleged Serbian war criminal - it was terrible what had happened in the Balkans in the early 1990s.

"It was ethnic cleansing and reminiscent of what I had experienced."

Despite everything he went through, he does not speak with hatred and bitterness about what happened to him.

He explained: "I do not feel resentment. I do not have time for it. Remaining bitter is not a good thing.

"It starts to affect your psyche, but we still must never forget.

Married to second wife Peggy since 1982, he has three children and nine grandchildren, who all live in North America.

Judge Buergenthal added: "I visit my grandchildren and see what lovely lives they have, compared to what I went through.

"This is why we must continue with Holocaust education to ensure they learn and to make sure that it does not happen to future generations."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph