Recently, it’s been in the news that 95 year old Friedrich Karl Berger, who had been living in Tennessee since the late 1950s, was deported to Germany because when he was 19 years old, he was a Nazi camp guard. Mr. Berger, who had retained his German citizenship, was kicked out of the United States due to the Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, a 1978 law that prohibits anyone who participated in Nazi sponsored persecution to live in the United States.
Because of this current event news item, I am reposting my review of Thomas Buergenthal’s book, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As A Young Boy, which I read in 2009, during our first time living in Germany. This review was written for Epinions.com in May 2009, reposted in 2015, and reposted again as/is.
Almost two weeks ago, I reviewed a book about a young man who escaped Saddam Hussein’s army. That review generated a lot of comments and good discussion and in the course of the discussion, the name Hitler came up. And a week later, I happened to come across Thomas Buergenthal’s 2009 book, A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As a Young Boy. Naturally, I had to read it.
Thomas Buergenthal was the only son of Mundek and Gerda Buergenthal, a handsome Jewish couple who got engaged three days after they met in 1933. Mundek Buergenthal owned a hotel in Lubochna, a resort town in what is now Slovakia. Gerda’s parents had sent their 20 year old daughter for a vacation in hopes of taking her mind off of her non-Jewish boyfriend. Gerda came from Goettingen, Germany, a university town. Her parents were somewhat well-to-do; they owned a shoe store. But at the time, Jews in Goettingen were being harassed by Nazi youths.
Mundek met Gerda at the German-Czech border instead of sending a driver to fetch her. That evening at dinner, Gerda was supposed to be seated at the owner’s table. She was surprised to see her driver there. She didn’t know he was also the owner of the hotel. They were married a few weeks later and Tommy Buergenthal was born eleven months after that.
The first few years of Tommy’s life were somewhat idyllic. But by 1938, the Hlinka Guard, a Slovak fascist group supported by the Nazis, had begun to harass the Jews. Mundek lost his hotel and the little family left Lubochna with only a few suitcases. They moved to Zilina, Slovakia and were able to get by for awhile. Mundek found a job and Gerda learned how to cook. Before long, however, the family was driven from Zilina and into Poland. Mundek had lost his Polish citizenship because he was out of the country for more than five years. Gerda had lost her German citizenship. The family was, in effect, without a country. They had no right to be in Poland or Czechoslovakia… and they didn’t want to be in Germany. They were finally able to settle in Katowice, Poland.
One day, Gerda and a friend went to see a fortune teller. The fortune teller was apparently very good at her craft and told Gerda that she was married and had a son and that her son was ein Gluckskind, a lucky child. The fortune teller then added, prophetically, that Gerda’s son would emerge from the future unscathed. Although Mundek thought Gerda was silly for believing the fortune teller, Gerda never forgot the encounter. It would give her much hope in the coming years.
The family was set to leave Poland for England on September 1, 1939. Unfortunately, Hitler invaded Poland before they could leave from the Polish port. They were going to try to leave Poland from the Balkans and were on a train heading that way when they were attacked by the Germans. By 1942, Tommy and his family were in a Nazi labor camp. By 1944, they were on their way to Auschwitz. Tommy was just ten years old.
The horrors of Auschwitz
When people ask Thomas Buergenthal about his time at Auschwitz, he tells him he was actually lucky to get in there. He adds that he often gets shocked looks from people when he tells them that, then explains that they were actually sent to Birkenau first. Birkenau is a few kilometers from Auschwitz and that was where the gas chambers and crematoriums were. When people arrived at Birkenau, they were subjected to a “selection”. They were lined up and the children, elderly, and invalids were immediately taken to the gas chambers. For some reason, Tommy’s group did not go through a selection. They had come from a labor camp and the SS guards had likely assumed that the weak ones had already been gassed. Had there been a selection, Tommy would have been killed immediately.
Tommy and his father were separated into one camp, while Gerda was sent to another. Their heads were shaved; then they were tatooed and issued uniforms. That evening, Tommy witnessed the first of many horrible scenes as a man was beaten to death in front of him. For the next year, young Tommy would be starved and exhausted; yet, he seemed to be as lucky as the fortune teller said he was. He escaped death many times before the Soviets liberated him in April 1945. He was finally reunited with his mother in 1946. And the fact that he was able to reunite with his mom was also a one in a million shot. Unfortunately, his father did not survive the camp.
Tommy Buergenthal ended up in America, where he later studied international law. He became a human rights lawyer, judge, and eventually the dean of the American University’s Washington College of Law. Now in his 70s, he wrote this book based on the fuzzy memories of his ordeal. He admits in his preface that had he written this book earlier, he would have had a clearer memory about everything that happened. But having just read this book, I can say that I think the memories he did have were probably enough. Buergenthal and his wife now live in The Hague, Netherlands.
A Lucky Child is a fascinating book. I found it very easy to get into Buergenthal’s story, which was alternately horrifying and exciting. After reading about everything that has happened to him, I have to admit that he really was a lucky child. He ran into so many kind people along the way… people who made it possible for him to survive. In one gripping chapter, he describes being moved from Poland to Sachsenhausen in Germany via Czechoslovakia. He and many other prisoners were on a freight train with open cars. When the train first started moving, the car was packed with people and that was enough to keep him warm, albeit uncomfortably squished. But the freezing conditions and lack of food was too much for some of the prisoners to take. They started to die. Soon, it was easy for Tommy to move around, but it was freezing cold and he was starving. As they passed under a couple of bridges in Czechoslovakia, people started dropping loaves of bread into the car. Had it not been for those kind people, it’s likely that Tommy and his friends would have died like the others. He was just eleven years old.
I also found Buergenthal’s story fascinating because as horrible as his experiences were, he also managed to have quite a few adventures, especially after he was liberated. Again, this was because many kind people had taken him under their wings and saw to it that he made it. He never seems to forget it, either. His attitude toward his benefactors is always appreciative. The fact that Tommy survived Auschwitz also made him somewhat a celebrity.
As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that I’ve been to a lot of the places Tommy was. He includes a map of Germany and the surrounding areas during World War II. A lot of the cities were familiar to me. This book also includes pictures, which help put faces to the Buergenthal’s words. Buergenthal speaks several languages and includes a few foreign words in his text, which he thankfully translates.
One thing that was very clear to me as I read this book is that Thomas Buergenthal’s experiences at Auschwitz profoundly changed his view of the world. He describes feeling very irritated with his children who, when they were growing up, hated milk and were picky about food. As a starving inmate at Auschwitz, Tommy and a couple of his friends once risked their lives for a spoonful of milk. He writes that he can’t bear to see food wasted, even when it’s a stale piece of bread. He’ll feed a crust of bread to the birds before he’ll throw it away. His perspective on conservation is one that perhaps a lot of people ought to revisit these days.
I marvel at the fact that Thomas Buergenthal is the same age as my parents are and that reminds me that World War II really wasn’t that long ago. I think A Lucky Child is an important book. It’s a good reminder of how things can go terribly awry when people get complacent about their leaders. I’m also amazed by Buergenthal’s resilience. He not only survived Auschwitz, he went on to thrive and later even came back to the places where he and so many others had suffered so much. I couldn’t help but wonder how he was able to process all of the horrors he witnessed. Yet, I also understand that because he processed them, he was able to share his ultimately triumphant story with the rest of the world.
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