By Tova Norman
Thomas Buergenthal, one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz, will speak in the Atlanta area Sunday, Jan. 24.
The event, organized by Am Yisrael Chai, is titled “Courage and Compassion: A Lucky Child Survives Auschwitz.” It commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the date Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops.
Buergenthal details his experiences from his birth in Czechoslovakia in 1934 to his parents’ fleeing to Poland, and his time in a ghetto, a labor camp and Auschwitz in his book, “A Lucky Child,” published in 2009.
After immigrating to America in 1951, Buergenthal became a human rights lawyer and law professor. In the 1980s he taught at Emory University and served as the director of the human rights program at the Carter Center.
People who attend the Jan. 24 event will have the opportunity not only to hear Buergenthal’s story, but also to explore an exhibit curated by Am Yisrael Chai titled “Confronting Auschwitz.” The exhibit tells the story of the death camp and highlights Atlanta survivors of Auschwitz.
Buergenthal also will participate in an Am Yisrael Chai daffodil planting, part of the Daffodil Project to plant 1.5 million daffodils worldwide as a memorial to the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust, at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights the same day from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Sign up to join the planting at www.SignUpGenius.com/go/30E0845ACAF2BA3FB6-downtown.
Buergenthal spoke to the Atlanta Jewish Times in advance of his Atlanta visit.
AJT: I think sometimes for us, for people who are in this next generation, the past seems so far. We think we are so much more advanced now. The more Holocaust books I read, the more I realize that your life was very similar to mine now.
Buergenthal: And also you have the great advantage of living in the United States, because in many countries Jews even today have to always be concerned. So if you grow up as a young Jewish child in the United States, the notion that there is something dangerous in being a Jew is something that doesn’t exist, but in other countries it’s always still there. It hangs over people. I have three sons, and it was always a wonder to me to see how they were growing up without the slightest fear that we all had. So you’re lucky.
But I should tell you, at the same time, I’m not somebody who walks around worried that there is going to be another Holocaust. If anything, on the contrary, but I just think the reason to remember the Holocaust is to make sure it doesn’t happen again, elsewhere for other people, for Jews, it’s important. What happened there is a tremendous tragedy for humankind as a whole, not just for Jews. Just imagine all the wonderful people that were lost in the Holocaust. Imagine how many Einsteins died, how many Nobel Prize winners died in the Holocaust. So it’s an important historical event, not only for Jews.
AJT: So do you think we can make sure the Holocaust doesn’t happen again?
Buergenthal: Yes, but one has to be alert. These remembrances, I don’t view them only as remembering the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but also in their memory we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again to other people. I always think of my father; what would he want me to do? My father died in the Holocaust. Would he just want me to remember him as a good father, or would he also want me to make sure that I at least contributed in one way or another to making sure that this doesn’t happen again?
AJT: You have so much experience. Now people are thinking about all of the injustices around the world, particularly the refugees coming from Syria.
Buergenthal: When I see those children and the refugees, I see myself because we were running away from Czechoslovakia to Poland on the roads and the German tanks were coming in. The refugees now compared to us are treated humanely. We knew we were going to be killed. But I have trouble seeing these pictures of the refugee children. I was 5 years old when it all started. And you see these children, their eyes. … You can’t be a mother or father without seeing the tragedy that these people are facing regardless of what their background is.
AJT: It’s interesting because you also faced that tragedy, and the world didn’t react. Now most of the world is reacting in some way, or at least wanting to do something. Do you see or feel the change?
Buergenthal: There is a change definitely in some countries, not in others. … People are much more aware than they were of our suffering. Of course it helps to have television. It helps to have computers, email, all of those things which show the world immediately what’s happening. In our day, people didn’t know until liberation most of the time. These modern advantages that we have are immensely valuable for human rights protection. … You turn on the television and see what’s happening any place in the world in real time. We didn’t have that. Probably more people could have been saved if we’d had those advances.
AJT: One of the things people say about you is that you have the ability to see the bad and the good. Do you think it’s true?
Buergenthal: Wouldn’t it be terrible if I only saw the bad after surviving? And what would I do with the rest of my life? You know, I’ve had a very good life. I had a bad life until I was 12 years old, but since then I’ve had a wonderful life. All the things I’ve done — fortunately my mother survived for a number of long years, and now with my children, my family. I’ve been very lucky with my jobs. I had a wonderful life. One has to feel that one is living a happy life and that life is not bad. What happened to us is just a small piece of one’s life. And one shouldn’t dwell on it, other than to tell the story, which I think one has an obligation to do.
AJT: Why do you think people should be obligated to tell their story?
Buergenthal: If you think of the Holocaust only in terms of 6 million, it doesn’t mean anything. Who can imagine the murder of 6 million people and what it meant? But if every one of us who had an experience — and everyone’s experience is a little bit different — if we tell the story, then the Holocaust takes on the meaning that it has for us who suffered in it. So many people never talked to their children or grandchildren; it’s terrible. You should tell them what it was like so that they see the Holocaust in terms of what actually happened.
AJT: What’s our next step in our obligation to continue to remember the Holocaust?
Buergenthal: We should remember the Holocaust, but not only in the way we remember a dead cemetery, but to remember making sure that this doesn’t happen again, and not only to Jews. Otherwise, you establish a memorial, and then you just forget everything that’s happened, and then we will build new memorials any place in the world after they have another genocide going on, and nothing will change. We have to make sure that we contribute to helping so it doesn’t happen again.
Who: Auschwitz survivor Thomas Buergenthal
What: Am Yisrael Chai Holocaust commemoration
Where: Westin Atlanta Perimeter North, 7 Concourse Parkway, Sandy Springs
When: Sunday, Jan. 24, at 5:30 p.m. for the “Confronting Auschwitz” exhibit and at 7 p.m. for the speaker
Admission: Free; RSVP required to courageandcompassion.eventbrite.com
Security note: Guests are asked to arrive early because of the anticipated number of people attending the event. Security staff will be checking bags, and police officers will be monitoring the event to maintain safety and security for all. The doors will open at 5:30 p.m., at which time the exhibit will be available for viewing until the program starts at 7.