Oral History

Thomas Buergenthal describes an emigration operation in an orphanage in postwar Germany

Thomas's family moved to Zilina in 1938. As the Slovak Hlinka Guard increased its harassment of Jews, the family decided to leave. Thomas and his family ultimately entered Poland, but the German invasion in September 1939 prevented them from leaving for Great Britain. The family ended up in Kielce, where a ghetto was established in April 1941. When the Kielce ghetto was liquidated in August 1942, Thomas and his family avoided the deportations to Treblinka that occurred in the same month. They were sent instead to a forced-labor camp in Kielce. He and his parents were deported to Auschwitz in August 1944. As Soviet troops advanced in January 1945, Thomas and other prisoners were forced on a death march from Auschwitz. He was sent to the Sachsenhausen camp in Germany. After the Soviet liberation of Sachsenhausen in April 1945, Thomas was placed in an orphanage. Relatives located him, and he was reunited with his mother in Goettingen. He moved to the United States in 1951.


A Zionist group, the Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa'ir, had, uh, more or less infiltrated the orphanage. And, uh, there was one counselor who got all of us who want, those who wanted to go to, to Israel--it was then Palestine--put the names on a list, and we would then run away, one by one, to the Zionist kibbutz in Poland, or camp. And from, and would be shipped from there to Palestine. And I signed up for this group. Problem was that, that I was the only one who had been in Auschwitz and in other camps. And so the decision was made that I should run away last, because I would be interviewed on newsreel and on radio about my camp, and they thought that if I ran away it would blow the whole operation. So I was put onto, on the list. The list was sent to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, to Jerusalem. But I was told that I would be told when to run away, but I would be the last person. In the meantime, something unbelievable happened. My mother had survived the camp, and my brother, my mother's brother, was here in the United States, and they began looking for me all over, of course, after the war. And they couldn't find me. My mother never gave up hope that I was alive. Everybody told her it's impossible that he survived. But she believed that I survived. And among other places where they looked, of course, was the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Somebody in the search bureau of the Jewish Agency for Palestine noticed that there was a child in the orphanage in Poland who was going to be coming to Palestine, who met the description of the child that the woman was looking for in Germany, and notified my uncle in the United States. And that's how they, how I was eventually reunited with my mother.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
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