Oral History

Thomas Buergenthal describes the plight of refugees today

Judge Thomas Buergenthal was one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 17. Judge Buergenthal has devoted his life to international and human rights law. A former chairman of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience, he is currently the Lobingier Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence at the George Washington University Law School and served for a decade as the American judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He served as a judge and president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and of the Administrative Tribunal of the Inter-American Development Bank, and was the first US national to be elected to the UN Human Rights Committee, a member of the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador, and vice chairman of the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland. With a unique perspective shaped by his experiences as a Holocaust survivor and international jurist, Judge Buergenthal has taught at several leading law schools and written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on international law and human rights.


I am struck when I see refugees on the road, part of a conflict whether it be in part of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and I immediately think back on my own experience, I was a child at the time and I think of the children. And of course to me it just gets me to the position where I feel we can't allow this thing to happen, we have to do something. And I would think that even if you haven't had the experience that I've had that many people, who have any sort of empathy, when they see what is happening, whether it be Darfur or Rwanda or Cambodia for example, that they will react in a similar way and that it will stimulate them. Whether in the world we live in with all of its complications, whether that conscience, to use [Raphael] Lemkin's term, that comes out of that experience, whether it can do very much in terms of preventing it is another matter. What it certainly should be able to do is to get people to recognize that what is going on should not be going on. What they can do about it is another matter and it is very very difficult.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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