“I voted for Obama but I think he made a great mistake when he decided not to instigate legal proceedings against some of these people.”
As a young boy, Thomas Buergenthal recalls, his mother taught him to kneel every night and thank God for his love and his protection. It’s a habit, I suggest, that must have been difficult to maintain after August 1944 when, at the age of 10, he was transported to Auschwitz.
“It was,” says Buergenthal. “Very difficult. I’ve always known that I was a Jew. But after the war I found I had no religious faith. I began to wonder how God could permit some of the things that happened to us. I admire people who emerged with their belief intact.”
It’s an inconvenient truth that, where Holocaust memoirs are concerned, the intensity of the experience is not necessarily matched by the quality of the writing.
Thomas Buergenthal’s 2010 biography, A Lucky Child, now republished, is a magnificent exception, remarkable for the author’s eye for significant detail in scenes of the most horrific disorder, and an absolute lack of hyperbole or vengefulness.
Buergenthal, 81, meets me in a London hotel. His gentle manner – occasionally reminiscent of the English actor Henry Travers, James Stewart’s guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life – belies the fierce dedication which he applied to his professional life.
The most distinguished living specialist in international human rights law, he served as a judge at the International Court of Justice for 10 years, until his retirement in 2010. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, but now a US citizen and Professor of Law at George Washington University, he lives in Maryland with his wife Peggy.
The author Joseph Heller once wrote a chapter called, “Every Change is for the Worse”. It’s a notion that must have some resonance for Buergenthal when he watches the news.
“The terrible plight of these refugees from Syria and Iraq,” he says, “isn’t that different from the Thirties, when people were trying desperately to flee from Germany to the UK and the USA. It’s extremely hard for me to see these images, given my experiences. But think of how things were in 1938, say, in terms of European anti-Semitism and racial prejudice in the USA.”
“It still seems relatively easy for a white officer to shoot a black man in broad daylight.”
“If I were a bigoted white policeman in the US today, I’d think twice. Of course things will never be perfect. Innocent people still get convicted. Criminals still escape.”
“You survived Auschwitz, as did your mother. Your father didn’t. Do you think it’s still worth pursuing former guards?”
“When people are in their nineties, I don’t see the value of it. There’s a certain cruelty, regardless of what they did, to imprisoning people of that age.”
“Staying with that subject: there’s a line in your book that reads, ‘Greville Janner [the 86-year-old lord accused of multiple cases of child abuse, originally judged unfit to plead but now to face a trial] was a friend and remains in touch with me’. ”
“I knew nothing about [these allegations] until recently. I was shocked.”
“When did you last speak to Janner?”
“About two years ago; he invited my wife and me to dinner.”
“How was he?”
“He really wasn’t compos mentis.”
“Have you asked him about these alleged crimes?”
“No. When he came to our house in Germany, as a British soldier – I was 13 – there was no hint of impropriety. All I can say is that it is very sad. He did many good things in his life. To end up like this … I am just very sorry.”
A born diplomat, Buergenthal occasionally finds that his instinct for tact deserts him. He describes George W Bush as “an ignorant person who wanted to show his mother he could do things his father couldn’t”. Richard Nixon was, “more intelligent. I don’t think Nixon would have got involved in Iraq”.
Some still believe that Western politicians including Tony Blair and Dick Cheney could end up in the dock at the International Criminal Court. Is this wishful thinking? Where Blair is concerned, Buergenthal says, he has no special expertise.
“But some of us have long thought that Cheney, and a number of CIA agents who did what they did in those so-called black holes [overseas torture centres] should appear before the ICC. We [in the USA] could have tried them ourselves. I voted for Obama but I think he made a great mistake when he decided not to instigate legal proceedings against some of these people. I think – yes – that it will happen.”