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Oral history interview with Thomas Buergenthal

Oral History | RG Number: RG-50.549.01.0005

Thomas Buergenthal, born in 1934 in L'ubochna, Czechoslovakia (present day Slovakia), discusses his family moving to Poland in 1939; living in the Kielce ghetto beginning in 1942 and surviving by offering to work; serving as an errand boy for a German officer who ran the Kielce work camp; listening to the officer’s radio for news about the war and reporting back to his parents; running ahead to warn fellow prisoners when the officer was coming through; learning to ride a bicycle that belonged to an SS officer; being deported to Auschwitz and then surviving a death march to Sachsenhausen with injuries from frostbite; the liberation of Sachsenhausen in 1945; exploring deserted houses in Oranienburg, Germany looking for food; being found by a group of Polish soldiers who adopted him as the “mascot” of the scout company of the 1st Polish Division; being given a small uniform, pistol, and pony; being cared for by the Polish soldiers who fed him and tried to stimulate his appetite with vodka; associations he still has with foods from that time; witnessing the Battle of Berlin and interacting with German prisoners of war; staying for a year in a Jewish orphanage run by the Bund; his relationship with the Norwegian author Odd Nansen, who interviewed him at the orphanage and wrote about him; his reunion with his mother in Göttingen, Germany in 1946 after his name appeared on a list of children waiting to go to Palestine; attending school in Göttingen and finding that, while he did not encounter antisemitism, teachers never mentioned the war; receiving care packages from the United States and from Odd Nansen; going to the United States on the USS General A. W. Greely to live with his uncle and aunt, the Silbergs, in Paterson, NJ; attending Bethany College, then law school, and eventually receiving his doctorate in international law; becoming a US citizen in 1957; dedicating himself to the defense of human rights as he represented the United States at UNESCO and served on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and the El Salvador Truth Commission; establishing courses on international human rights law in United States law schools; talking to his children about his wartime experiences; his philosophy on human rights and his opinions about how neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers should be treated; dealing with difficult memories, especially since the death of his mother; how he avoids books and movies about the Holocaust; his own Jewish identity and raising his children in the Jewish tradition; and writing about his experiences.

Some video files begin with 10-60 seconds of color bars.
Thomas Buergenthal
Katie Davis
interview:  1995 November 28
3 sound cassettes (60 min.).
Record last modified: 2022-05-06 12:36:12
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