BETHANY, W.Va. – The tears didn’t come at first, but upon learning that the Bethany Board of Trustees had established a new scholarship for refugees in his name, Judge Thomas Buergenthal, Bethany class of 1957, found it difficult to speak as the emotion of the moment reached its pinnacle.

Buergenthal, one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz and Sachenhausen concentration camps, returned to his alma mater to address the Class of 2019 during Bethany College’s 179th Commencement ceremony, May 11, a day that also marked the human rights advocate’s 85th birthday.

“Given my age, I asked myself whether a person who graduated from college more than a half a century ago can have anything of value to say to you, today’s Bethany’s graduates,” Buergenthal said.

On the contrary, Buergenthal did far more than share advice during the ceremony; he showed the Class of 2019 and all those present how to live.

“His life is a testament to the human ability to overcome horrific conditions and then to dedicate one’s self to improving those conditions for others,” said Kayce Mobley, assistant professor of political science, who introduced Buergenthal.

In his remarks, Buergenthal shared how the characterization of being “self-made” is often a myth.

“I cannot think of anything I achieved in my own life in which I was not helped by someone else,” he said. “No one is self-made in the sense that he or she wasn’t helped by others to achieve who they have become.”

Buergenthal then went on to explain that help may come through a teacher who recommended them, or who encouraged them to read a certain book that ended up impacting their lives. The support and courage of parents, relatives, and even complete strangers also play a role in one’s journey.

This proved especially true for him at the Auschwitz concentration camp, a symbol of terror and genocide of the Holocaust where more than 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives between 1940-1945. He arrived at age 10 after already surviving two ghettos and a labor camp. At the camp, he was torn from his father and slated for the gas chamber. Yet, the random act of one SS officer changed his fate, as the officer altered Buergenthal’s card that denoted the chamber as his destination.

His incredible story of survival is recounted in his memoir, A Lucky Child, a copy of which each graduate received during the ceremony. His survival also influenced his distinguished career and his uncompromising advocacy for human rights.

Learning that Bethany would now help future refugees attend the College that opened its doors to him more than six decades ago proved overwhelming to the American judge, professor, and New York University Law School Root-Tilden Scholar, who formerly served on the International Court of Justice and the UN Human Rights Committee, among other prestigious posts.

“It is very hard for me to speak because of the award, which means so much to me, and to come from Bethany particularly, I thank all of you and Bethany very, very much,” he said.


Bethany College, founded in 1840, is the oldest private college in West Virginia. The Bethany experience focuses on academic excellence in the area of liberal arts and prepares students for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.