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The GW Hatchet

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By Ella Mitchell, Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

Students tell law professor’s Holocaust survivor story

When law professor Thomas Buergenthal was about 6 years old, his mother took him to a palm reader in Eastern Europe before World War II broke out. He would be a lucky child, the palm reader told him.

At about 10 years old, Buergenthal was one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust – escaping the death march and concentration camps in Germany and Poland to reunite with his mother after a two-year search. A look inside Buergenthal’s journey from Auschwitz to a legal career is one part of a student-designed exhibit in Gelman Library.

Undergraduates in the honors international affairs class Holocaust and Memory pieced together letters, timelines, telegrams and dreary, black-and-white photographs to dive inside the life of a Holocaust survivor. The exhibit opened last week.

For Buergenthal, 78, peering into the four glass-covered cases on the library’s seventh floor was surreal, like a “historical autopsy” of his life. He said that meeting his mother at a train station in Germany – more than two years after they were separated at Auschwitz – was the most profound experience of his life, but still the hardest to remember and discuss.

“You feel sort of like you’re in a mausoleum for somebody else,” he said in an interview last week.

Of the estimated nine million Jews living in German-occupied countries before the Holocaust, two-thirds were killed by its end in 1945. More than one million of those who died were children.

Before he found out his mother was still alive and the two were reunited, Buergenthal was the only child in his Polish orphanage who survived Auschwitz.

The law professor moved to the U.S. in 1951 and joined GW in 1989, holding an endowed position teaching comparative law and jurisprudence. His credentials include time as a judge on both the International Court of Justice at The Hague and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as well as a dean at American University’s law school.

The student exhibit details the later part of Buergenthal’s life, including his survivor story, which was also documented in his 2009 book “A Lucky Child.” Buergenthal said the book and the exhibit help bring to life “what the Holocaust was like for just one family, not for the six or eight million people, but to just say that this is what happened to my life.”

The professor also worked closely with former President Jimmy Carter as the director of the Human Rights Program at the Carter Center during his career.

Eighteen students in international affairs professor Walter Reich’s class soaked up Buergenthal’s story.

“My children will never get the opportunity to do anything like this. They will never get to hear a survivor’s story firsthand,” senior Omayra Chuquihuara said. “It’s important to connect ourselves with the Holocaust memory at some point, whatever it may be, and make sure that future generations never forget.”

Reich said he organized the project for his class on Holocaust memory to offer a chance for students to understand the horrific events of the infamous genocide through the personal story of one survivor. Students created the four cases that make up the exhibit with some help from a graduate student in the museum studies program.

“It is personalizing an event which is almost incomprehensible – which is really incomprehensible – the Holocaust,” Reich, a former director of the Holocaust Museum, said. “One of the things that can be learned is think of all the people who didn’t survive and what they could have contributed to the world.”

Amelia Williams contributed to this report.

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