Book Review: A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal

A moving, cool account of a searing, terrifying childhood

A lucky ChildWartime heroism takes many forms. Survival, honorably achieved, is the basis of this memoir of one young boy’s victory over the unimaginable cruelties, the starvation and brutality of the Nazi concentration camps.

It’s a story told coolly, without a trace of self-pity, long after the terrible events; told objectively, effectively so, with few adjectives and minimal sentiment, in a straight-forward style that adds to the raw power of the narrative. It simply recounts the dreadful conditions and circumstances the young survivor found himself facing.

I suspect most readers will feel it is more than simple luck, as the title modestly suggests, that allowed one small boy to outlast countless others who suffered and died under the same terrifying circumstances.

Good fortune had its part, no doubt. But so very few young children survived the Nazis’ mass murder of Jewish families (and other targeted groups) that it becomes clear how a combination of factors, including a sharp natural intelligence, precocious courage, and perhaps a physical robustness, also played their part in preserving the life of this amazing boy. And the world can be thankful that it was preserved to become an adult life of real significance and positive contribution to the human condition, on a global level. Because this “lucky child” lived on, eventually working to alleviate human suffering as an important jurist in the international courts of human rights.

After liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children's barracks. Poland, January 27, 1945
After liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, January 27, 1945

It’s a true story, one that should be told in schools, a story to be read by anyone who strives to understand that strange dichotomy between the conflicting capacities for humans to do evil and to do good. The book also illustrates how some may capitulate or succumb to terrible treatment (often through no lack of moral strength, it must be said) while others may display an indomitability and resourcefulness that refuses to let go of life and hope.

The photo of the young Thomas on the book’s cover, taken shortly after his liberation from the horror of the camps, says much: still appearing somewhat shell-shocked from the deaths, the murders and depravities he witnessed, while at the same time projecting a searing intelligence and determination.

I would be honored to have known this boy, and this man, Thomas Buergenthal.

A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy

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