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Heart of Human Rights: Thomas Buergenthal [Crystal City magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Crystal City magazine
Cover story
Spring 1999
Photo by Bognovitz

Thomas Buergenthal’s eyes disarm you. They reveal a 50 year-old tale of his struggle to stay alive at Auschwitz, the horror of being 10 and separated from his parents only to learn that his father was executed three days before the war ended.

Yet, there is a youthful twinkle in those gray-green eyes. A warmth which attracts heads of government to the 64 year-old diplomat, who is also a professor of Comparative and International Law and presiding director of the International Rule of Law Center at the George Washington University Law School.

His job is to negotiate peaceful outcomes as a member, chairman and/or president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Last Spring, he was chosen by the Volcker Commission to become a member of the 16-person Claims Resolution Tribunal, which will determine who gets the millions of dollars that have been locked inside 7,000 dormant Swiss bank accounts since World War 11. And in September, he was elected to a second term to the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Committee. This treaty-monitoring body oversees the interpretation and application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright supported Buergenthal’s nomination.

“Professor Buergenthal has served with great distinction since his election in September 1994,” Albright said. “There is no one better qualified to serve on the committee. His work is vitally important.”

Tantamount for Buergenthal is to fight for those unable to defend themselves. “If the Holocaust has any significance, it is to teach us that we all have to fight hatred and discrimination. Discrimination leads to the loss of humanity. And if there is any lesson, if there is any obligation of those of us who have survived, it is that we must not permit these sufferings to happen again.”


Buergenthal’s ordeal at Auschwitz started in 1944, where he was slated by Hitler’s Nazis to be killed. While waiting to be taken to the crematorium, he befriended a Polish doctor who liked the young Buergenthal’s habit of carrying a piece of soap to clean off the filth from the camp.

At great risk to himself, the doctor tore up the card Buergenthal was carrying, which had been marked with a large “X” signifying he was to be gassed. The doctor substituted an unmarked card; when the other prisoners were awakened during the night and dragged away to the gas chamber, Buergenthal was allowed to sleep—and to live.

The following year, the Nazis moved him and hundreds of others from Auschwitz to various other concentration camps in Germany. The undernourished ones were forced to walk three days along Poland’s frozen roads. This infamous journey, known as the Auschwitz Death March, led Buergenthal to a 12-day ride on open railroad cars through his native Czechoslovakia to the Sachsenhausen camp close to Berlin.

By the end of the trip, two of Buergenthal’s toes were so badly frostbitten they had to be amputated. A few days later the Russians arrived with the good news: “You are liberated,” soldiers told Buergenthal. The War was over. But where was he to go?

Fortunately, Polish was one of the languages Buergenthal mastered during his time in the camps. When Polish troops under Russian command came through, Buergenthal spoke to them fluently and they took him back to Poland.

He eventually was taken to a Jewish orphanage, where he lived for two years. During that time, his mother Gerda, who also survived the war, was looking for the son she had heard was dead, but hoped was still alive. She, and an uncle who lived in the U.S., had contacted search agencies all over the world. Someone in Palestine had seen Buergenthal’s name on an orphanage register and made the connection. Buergenthal was smuggled out of Poland and reunited with his mother in December 1946.


In the years after the War, Buergenthal remembers watching happy families pass by his home in Gottingen and fantasizing
about shooting them with a machine gun.

“I missed my father so much and was so angry that he and my grandparents were taken from me that I was jealous of the happiness I saw in others,” he recalls. “All I could feel was the hatred and anger.” Then came an epiphany. Anger only begat more, he realized. Slowly, he let the bad memories fade.

Buergenthal went to live with an uncle and aunt in New Jersey in December 1951. Eighteen months later, he graduated from high school and won a scholarship to Bethany College in West Virginia. He graduated in 1957 with a double major in history and political science, then decided to go to law school as his father Mundek had 40 years earlier.

“I knew that if I could work in the international arena, I might be able to prevent some of the atrocities that befell my family and friends,” he says. Buergenthal received his J.D. from New York University in 1960, went on to Harvard where he obtained a Master of Laws in 1961 and a Doctor of Judicial Science in 1968. Between 1961 and 1989, he taught law at the University of Pennsylvania, The State University of New York at Buffalo, and the University of Texas.

From 1980 to 1985, he was the dean of the American University Law School, and in 1985 former president Jimmy Carter selected him as the director of the human rights program at the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta.

He missed Washington, D.C., though. His wife Peggy, a Spanish-English interpreter, couldn’t find much work there. So when George Washington University called in 1989 asking Buergenthal to teach for a year, he accepted the position. GW was as impressed with the professor as the rest of the world, and offered him the job of chairman of the International Human Rights and Comparative Law program.

Buergenthal was reunited with his old Harvard law school professor and mentor, Louis Sohn, the grandfather of international human rights law. “The two of them created the field,” says Ralph Steinhardt, a Harvard law graduate and director of the international law program at GW, which Buergenthal chaired until last summer. “They are both giants in the field of human rights and have a profound and unparalleled understanding of international taw.”

Of Buergenthal, Steinhardt says he is “a splendid teacher, but not an easy teacher. He expects his students to think clearly, independently, comprehensively, and insists they come to conclusions themselves. He models good thinking, but won’t tell students what to think.” What truly makes Buergenthal a master, Steinhardt says, is his humanity. “He is the true definition of the Yiddish word mensch, an honorable person. He is a force of good in the world.”

Most of his students think so, too, and many have gone on to work in foreign governments and private human rights organizations. “It is not easy to deal intellectually with problems that make your heart ache; you can’t be emotional. You have to deal in a hard-nosed way with human rights issues, lest you harm the cause.”

Indeed, advancing the cause of human rights is Buergenthal’s life’s work.

“What we must not forget is our obligation to those who died on the death march, in the camps, and in the ghettos. We must do our part, large or small, to ensure that those who come after us, whether they be Jews, Haitians, Muslims, Rwandans-in short, human beings anywhere, whatever their race, religion, or nationality, that they not be subjected to what was done to us.”


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.