Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Salon: A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal

Thomas Buergenthal was born in Czechoslovakia shortly before the second world war. He was Jewish, and since his family were unable to escape before the Nazis invaded they were sent to first a ghetto and eventually a concentration camp. By this time the family were separated - the mother sent in one direction and Thomas and his father in another. Eventually father and son too were separated, and the scene where Thomas sees his father for the last time is as sudden as it is sad. It seems that Thomas is about to meet the same fate that has already befallen his peers. But Thomas endured. Very few children survived Auschwitz and Thomas is the youngest.

The Buergenthals survived most of the years of the war by using their intelligence and managing to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who were intent on destroying them. They made themselves useful, and then emphasised that usefulness whenever they were challenged. Other children were rounded up and swiftly exterminated, but Thomas and his father showed that they had skills that were valued: their fluency in languages for instance, and Thomas's father's skills as a manager in charge of a valued workshop. Another factor which was in Thomas's favour was that he was blond and fair-skinned and therefore, oddly, accepted - by the bigoted members of this society - where a darker-complexioned would not have been.

Eventually, at the end of the war, Thomas is rescued and for a short time becomes a mascot of some Polish soldiers before returning home. Even then life is difficult, and it is some time before he is reunited with his mother (even this is a fluke because at the end of the war his mother found herself on the other side of the iron curtain from her son). Thomas is just eleven years old. His father, he learns, is dead.

The memoir does not stop there. Thomas describes the numerous difficulties of living in post-war Europe. Money is short, and then a period of happiness with a new step-father comes to a swift end when he too dies.

There are odd coincidences. It turns out the 'Uncle' Odd Nansen, a Norwegian Thomas meets in an infirmary when in Sachsenhausen, is none other than the son of the famous explorer Fridtjof Nansen (someone I came across in my researches for Wegener's Jigsaw, since he was one of the early explorers of Greenland). Odd Nansen is a writer and has made the young boy he met in Sachsenhausen famous in his memoirs. The two keep a fond correspondence and eventually meet again in Norway where Thomas is enthusiastically welcomed - not only by Nansen's family, but by Nansen's many readers.

Thomas Buergenthal with Odd Nansen after the war.

In 1951 Thomas emigrates alone to America and becomes a successful lawyer specialising in human rights, which, as he points out, have been violated again and again since the holocaust.

When I first read the back of the book (kindly sent to me by the publisher, Profile books) I wondered if there was really any more that could be said about this dreadful period of European history, but A Lucky Child has shown that there is. It is a story about survival. Although almost unbearably sad in parts it is also a story about hope and the strength of the human spirit, and I finished it feeling as though I had somehow imbibed some of Thomas's Buegenthal's optimism. Eventually, despite all odds, he had won through. I highly recommend his book.