I was introduced to the tragedies of the holocaust through literature, or a diary to be more specific, as were many others I’m sure. I read Anne Frank’s diary not as a school assignment, but on my own, and was possibly too young for it, but once drawn into her experience I found I could not leave and sat dumbfounded for weeks when I got to the end. I have since read a few other accounts of the holocaust, most of them tragic, some of them purely historical fiction, and others autobiographical. I am always both shocked by the horror of these events, and dumbfounded by the inhumane actions of the Nazi party and all those who stood idly by, and wonder what in the world I would have done had I been alive then. I can’t say that I know for sure, and I think no one can. I have also been inspired by those who survived and have written or spoken oraly of their accounts, or those who resisted on either side, or tried to help in whatever way they could. I have sometimes thought that these people have held something more in the way of courage or strength, that something special that kept them going.
Thomas Buergenthal, in his book A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy presents his own survival a bit differently. Written fifty or more years after the fact, with time to reflect on what has occurred, and to come to grips with the many mixed emotions of a survivor, Buergenthal believes luck had more to do with his survival than anything else. In writing chronologically about his experience in the ghetto, work camps, and concentration camps we have all become familiar with, he does mention several key opportunities and key individuals who, through their involvement in the situation made a large impact on his chances. He also mentions, several times, those who were connected to him but for whatever reason were not as fortunate as he was.
This book is unique in that it is the story of a boy from about age 5 to 17 written by his older self. Although I was more easily drawn into Anne’s diary, because it is so personal and very much written in the voice of a young girl not always fully aware of what was happening to her, this book drew me in for different reasons. I was reminded of the several oral histories I have had the opportunity to listen to, spoken in person by the survivors themselves, most now much older than they were when their lives were transformed. They spoke being very much aware of what had happened, and why they were speaking. The few who have shared their story have all said the same thing: I share my story so that history will not be repeated. I felt an overwhelming connection to these individuals even when I was in an audience of many. This was the connection I felt in reading Thomas’s memoir, the understanding that I was now another witness to his life.
I think every holocaust account is special and unique, even if some of the places and events may overlap. Through each of these stories we can be reminded of the effects of genocide left unchecked. In the epilogue to the book, Thomas speaks of his work as a civil rights lawyer, and the many times and places, even into the present, where he has seen history repeat itself and how he as tried to use his own experiences for the good of others. It may take luck to survive, but it does take something special to turn that luck into a life-long mission.