The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum deeply mourns the passing of Judge Thomas Buergenthal, Holocaust survivor, renowned international jurist and human rights champion, Museum Council member, founder of the Museum’s genocide prevention program, and laureate of the Museum’s highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award.
One of the few children to survive Auschwitz, Judge Buergenthal dedicated his life to ensuring that others did not experience what he had and holding accountable those who committed crimes against targeted populations. In a Museum oral history interview, he declared, “We can’t allow these things to happen, we have to do something.”
Born May 11, 1934, in then-Czechoslovakia, Tom Buergenthal was a child when his family fled the country after facing increasing antisemitic harassment and persecution. They were in Poland when Nazi Germany occupied the country and were forced into the Kielce ghetto and then a forced labor camp before being deported to Auschwitz in August 1944, when Justice Buergenthal was ten.
He was one of the few children not sent to the gas chambers on arrival. His mother was sent to the women’s camp. He wrote in his memoir that his mother had been told that he was a “Lucky Child,” and “lucky” was how he described his survival during the Holocaust. He was liberated from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in April 1945 and later placed in an orphanage. He was reunited with his mother three years after they had been separated. His father perished at Buchenwald.
In 1951 at age 17, Judge Buergenthal immigrated to the United States. He attended Harvard Law School and began a remarkable legal career that spanned decades. Judge Buergenthal helped to develop international law, notably human rights, humanitarian, and criminal law through his work as a judge at the International Court of Justice, as judge and president at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as a member of the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador, as judge at the Administrative Tribunal of the Inter-American Development Bank, as vice-chairman of the Claims Restitution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland owned by victims of Nazism, as the first US national appointed to the UN Human Rights Committee, and through extensive writing and teaching including at George Washington University Law School.
“Shaped by his experience as a Holocaust survivor, Judge Buergenthal was always clear, he said repeatedly that, ‘We have an obligation as survivors and we owe it to the people who died, to make sure that these things don’t happen in other places.’ Today we mourn the passing of a giant, a champion for justice, and a voice for those whose voices are all too often silenced,” said Naomi Kikoler, director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.