Sunday, July 19, 2009

103 (2009 #28). A Lucky Child

by Thomas Buergenthal

Subtitled “A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy,” this is a Holocaust memoir with a different twist. The author is now the American judge at the International Court of Justice (aka the World Court of the United Nations) in The Hague, Netherlands. He writes about the events in the book 55-60 years after they happened, looking back at his life at ages 4 to 17. The passage of time, and what Buergenthal did with his life in the interim, gives the memoir a perspective that is unique in Holocaust literature.

Thomas Buergenthal writes of the time his Jewish family spent in then-Czechoslovakia and Poland trying to stay ahead of the Nazis in late 1938 – early 1939. They finally received hard-to-get visas to travel to England – the day Hitler invades Poland. They wind up in the Jewish ghetto in Kielce and later in a couple labor camps. His Polish father and German mother—-and Thomas--often use their wits to escape dangerous situations.

In July 1944, when Thomas is ten, his family is sent to Auschwitz. It was unusual for children not to be killed immediately upon arrival there, but as Thomas arrives with others from the labor camp, it is assumed he can work. He and his father are separated from his mother upon arrival, and Thomas from his father a few months later. Thomas survives the Auschwitz Death Transport, marching for three days in freezing temperatures 70 kilometers, where he was herded into an open train car for the ride to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Thomas again survives until the liberation, becomes a mascot of the Polish Army, spends some time in a Polish orphanage, and is finally reunited with his mother in Germany 18 months after the end of the war. The story ends with Thomas emigrating to the United States at the age of 17.

The book is enhanced by a two-page map showing all the locations in the story, as well as numerous black-and-white photographs of the author, his parents, and his maternal grandparents (who also died in the Holocaust), and other memorabilia. That the photographs even exist is an example of individual humanity given in the book. Thomas’ grandparents left a suitcase with a neighbor in Germany when they were deported. “'We were always afraid that the Nazis would find it and punish us, but we promised your parents we’d hide it, and we did.’” For Thomas’ mother, this suitcase was “a treasure trove. All her family pictures, including photos of her parents, my father, and me, had been lost in the camps. Erased with the destruction of these pictures, it seemed to her, was proof that her family had ever existed.” (page 156)

By looking back at these events from so many years later, Buergenthal is able both to describe them dispassionately, through the filter of his life experiences, and tie his career and observations about human rights back to these events in his childhood. For this reason, I think this Holocaust memoir would be especially valuable for teens and young adults to read, and I plan to add my reviewer copy (a hardbound final edition) to my university’s library.

No comments:

Post a Comment