T. Buergenthal, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy (NY, Little, Brown: 2007, 2009). *
This memoir is not about the terror; it is about the struggle to remember, and to remember accurately. Thomas Buergenthal, who became an outstanding scholar in human rights law, is a former Chief Justice of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and is now a justice on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, fled nazi Germany with his family as a child, spent several years in the ghettos, and then was in Auschwitz and the last trains back to Germany. In this memoir, Buergenthal gently and reflectively weaves personal memory, the historical facts as they came to be known, and the perspective of a jurist looking back and seeking truth and balance into a well-written and easily read narrative.
When still a child, a fortune teller said of Buergenthal that he was “a lucky child.” This motif was adopted by Buergenthal’s mother and sustained her hope that he was alive long after they had been separated while at Auschwitz. It also became a leitmotif in Buergenthal’s own vision of himself. The book moves between the innocent child in the world of hell, the wily boy who learns the skills of survival, and the adult who wonders over and over again, how this happened and why things turned out as they did. Reflecting on the sheer lunacy of the concentration camp world alternates with the joy of the child who is adopted as the mascot of a Polish army unit, and yet again with the awareness that no one can really be trusted. Madness, charm, and the need to be constantly alert are present all the time.
Aside from the astonishing story of this little boy who, at war’s end, could not even read, the book contains a moral lesson. After the war, young Thomas continued to live in Germany for several years, much to the consternation of the reader who expects mother and son to get out of Europe as soon as they can. However, in the course of this stay, young Thomas had to confront Germans, many of whom had been perpetrators and others who were, like himself, too young to have been responsible. In this, he also had to confront his fantasies of revenge. How natural to want to machine-gun Germans walking peacefully down the street repressing, or unaware of, his and his family’s suffering! Yet Buergenthal mastered this ethically and it is this mastery that lead him to a distinguished career as a jurist specializing in human rights. He can never forget. He can never erase the tattoo on his arm. But he cannot let hatred control his life.
This book is a must – not for the terror or for some new nugget of information on nazism, the war, and the concentration and extermination process, but for the integrity of the attempt to remember and to integrate memory into a larger life.
David R. Blumenthal
Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
* Appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology, 17:2 (2010) 160-61.