The last question at the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Thursday with Judge Thomas Buergenthal went to a retired Milwaukee school teacher who painted a gloomy picture of the state of the world.
“Humanity is having a real problem,” she said. “These are horrible times right now.”
Buergenthal answered in a positive fashion: “You’re too pessimistic,” he said. “Things are happening. They’re not happening as fast as you and I would like it to happen. There are some bad things happening too. But overall, we are moving slowly, too slowly.” He mentioned efforts by the United Nations and regional human rights organizations around the world that he thought were having positive impact.
“We do more harm to these developments if we think they’re not working.” He said. “So the trick is to stay with it.“
Buergenthal has stayed with it for decades. He is an authority on international and human rights law and one of the youngest Holocaust survivors. He is an emeritus professor of law at George Washington Law School and a former judge of the International Court of Justice at the Hague – among many distinctions and accomplishments. And he is author or co-author of numerous books, including a memoir, A Lucky Child, about surviving Auschwitz as a child. In his early 80s, he is, in fact, one of the youngest survivors of the notorious Nazi concentration camp.
In the one hour session, co-sponsored by the Women’s Philanthropy of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Edie Adelman Political Awareness Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation, Buergenthal took a gentle and generally upbeat approach to describing his life, including the impact of the Holocaust. His father died in the camps and Buergenthal was separated from his mother. She found him in an orphanage in December 1946, more than a year and half after World War II ended.
“I probably sound like someone who always lives with what hits him, and that’s true,” Buergenthal said, referring to his resiliency in the face of severe circumstances in life.
He said there is a connection between his personal story and his selection of human rights law as a career. If there had been institutions like international courts in early 1930s, they would have saved many people, he believes.
And courts, such as the International Court at the Hague are accomplishing more than many people say. They aren’t meeting the need for human rights enforcement in the world, but they deserve support.
Gousha asked Buergenthal if the international community should be doing more about human suffering in Syria now. Yes, he said, but he pointed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as someone showing the best of what a nation can do on refugee issues. Germany has accepted about a million refuges.
“We just need a few Merkels. . . . Governments are governments, politicians are politicians, one should never be surprised. . . . We can’t be too optimistic because we’re going to be disappointed,” he said. “You can’t see the children without feeling like we have to do something, and the only one that has really done anything is Germany.” He pointed to Hungary, which has been resisting immigrants, as a contrast.
But you can’t give up hope even if we see things happening that are terrible, he said. The world needs more truth commissions, more international tribunals, and more heroic leaders.
But as positive as Buergenthal’s tone was, it was certainly not without sadness. An audience member asked him if he was an only child. His answer was yes, but as the Jewish ghetto where he was a child was being broken apart by the Nazis, two neighbors each pressed a child onto Buergenthal’s mother as she was about to flee and told her to save them. The children became like a brother and sister to him, he said. They did not survive the “selections” in the concentration camps. And Buergenthal teared up as he spoke, more than 70 years later.
Video of the program may be viewed by clicking here.