Oral History

Thomas Buergenthal describes the significance of the Nuremberg trials to him both personally and as a lawyer and judge

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 will answer the question about what I find interesting about Nuremberg not as international judge or international lawyer, but from a personal point of view. To me it showed that it was possible, that things we did not think possible in the camps -- at least many of us didn't, that one day, these people would pay for what they had done -- proved possible, when they were in the dock. That is to victims extremely important and I think, now switching to being an international lawyer, it is very important for the world to see, for retributive purposes, that some of the most powerful people in the world, who at least think they are the most powerful people, they one day have to account for their crimes, and that is refreshing. And vital. It's really very important when one wants to establish international system, international laws, to be able to point to some concrete examples.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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