A Lucky Child Summary

Thomas Buergenthal

A Lucky Child

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A Lucky Child Summary

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A Lucky Child is a memoir written by Czech judge, author, and Holocaust survivor Thomas Buergenthal, and was first published in 2007. It focuses on the story of how Buergenthal survived the Holocaust as a ten-year-old Jewish child during the Nazi invasion of his home country, thanks to his wits and some remarkable strokes of luck. Following his early life and family history in what was then Czechoslovakia, and his later escape from a concentration camp, the book explores themes of luck, faith, and the endurance of the human spirit. It takes its title from the author’s mother, called Mutti, who was told while visiting a fortune teller that her son had been born with remarkable luck. Having been compared positively to Elie Wiesel’s Night and Stephen Nasser’s My Brother’s Voice, A Lucky Child is considered an essential addition to the canon of Holocaust memoirs and is frequently used in college classes on the time period.

A Lucky Child begins by focusing on Thomas’ parents. His father, Mundek, was born in Galicia, which at that time belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He moved to Berlin to work for a Jewish-owned bank, rising through the ranks to become a manager. As Hitler rose to power and violence against Jewish people increased, Mundek left Germany to move to L’ubochna, in Czechoslovakia, where he became manager of a resort hotel. That was where he met Gerda Silbergleit, a twenty-year-old German Jewish woman on vacation. They fell passionately in love, becoming engaged only three days after meeting. Thomas was born eleven months later, and raised in relative peace and happiness until 1938. That was when the Hlinka Guard, a Slovak fascist party, seized the hotel, and the family moved to Katowice, Poland. Thomas was five at the time that Germany invaded Poland, and the family sought refuge in Kielce, a city with a large Jewish population. It was later turned into a ghetto by the Nazis, and the Buergenthals stayed put, as their one-bedroom apartment was already located within the area designated as the ghetto.

Life in the ghetto was challenging, as there was a shortage of food, and everyone lived in fear of Nazi raids and of being reported by informants who were looking for an edge for their families. Thomas’ father often told him that the walls had ears. Once an investment banker, Mundek now worked as a cook’s helper, although Thomas didn’t realize, due to his young age, just how far his father had fallen. Eventually, Mundek was promoted to head of the ghetto factory. This continued until August 1942, when the ghetto was liquidated. Thomas’ father used his position as head of the factory to bluff his way out of the ghetto with his family and a handful of workers. Those who weren’t so lucky were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp immediately, but the survivors were sent to the work camp. As the final members of the ghetto were rounded up for deportation, children were separated from their parents and marked for extermination, but young Thomas blurted out “Captain, I can work” to the Nazi in charge, and was tentatively spared. The family was sent to a large sawmill where Thomas’ dual-language skills in German and Polish made him useful as an errand boy to Fuss, the cruel mill manager. Thomas knew when Fuss would be making surprise visits to check in on the workers, and warned them, thus sparing them many beatings. Although Thomas witnessed great brutality and many factory workers were beaten and hunt, he also witnessed great acts of bravery and kindness on the parts of the workers, which convinced him of the importance of moral resistance in the face of evil.

In July 1944, when Thomas was ten, his family was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Thomas was spared once again because the selection process was skipped. The commander assumed that because the transport came from a work camp, everyone was fit to work. Thomas was sent to the Birkenau work camp, where he eluded death on many occasions with the help of his father. Mundek developed a strategy to beat the system by having Thomas stand near the back, by the entrance to the barracks, during roll call, and then retreating into the barracks when the roll call was followed by the selection of a group to be taken to the gas chambers. However, at one point his luck ran out and Thomas was snared in a special selection for execution. This was  a small group and Thomas was taken to a staging barracks that was used for quarantining inmates with scabies. The Nazis kept them there for weeks until they built up a larger group for efficient gassing. During this time, the young Polish doctor responsible for the quarantine tore up Thomas’ ID card and gave him a new, unmarked one. When the Nazis came to collect the group and execute them, Thomas miraculously slept through the entire incident, thinking it was a nightmare, and was left behind.

During the evacuation of Auschwitz, the SS guards decided to kill all the children by luring them out to tell them they were being sent to a convent. Thomas told his young friends not to comply, and they hid in the crowd and avoided detection. The marchers were then taken by freight car to Germany, where they were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Thomas lost two toes to frostbite, but survived until the camp was liberated in April of 1945 by the Russian army. At eleven years old, Thomas saw Berlin fall and was made an unofficial ward of a company of the Polish army. He eventually wound up in an Polish orphanage until his mother, who survived the war, came to find him. Thomas immigrated to the United States in 1951, and eventually graduated from the New York University School of Law. He dedicated himself to human rights and international law, and  rose to the rank of judge on the International Court of Justice, where he served until 2010.

Thomas Buergenthal currently serves as Lobingier Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence at the George Washington University Law School.