BETHANY, W.Va. – Alumnus Thomas Buergenthal, class of 1957, world-renowned judge, and one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz and Sachenhausen concentration camps, delivered the commencement address at Bethany College’s 179th Commencement Ceremony on May 11.

Buergenthal, whose 85th birthday coincided with Bethany’s commencement, began his speech to the class of 2019 with a warning to not let status and money dictate one’s future.

“Have a career that will enable you to contribute to a cause or subject close to your hearts or one you consider important for other reasons,” said Buergenthal. “Don’t be afraid to have ideals. Personal satisfaction will follow if you are happy in what you’re doing.”

He then noted that the graduates should appreciate their parents, professors, books, and all outside influences that made an impact on their career goals, as nobody is self-made.

“Believe me . . . it helps to have a willing and wise mentor. Sometimes too, you may be helped by a thoughtless stranger, and frequently, you will not know why.”

Buergenthal recounts that when he was a ten-year-old in Auschwitz, he escaped the fate of a gas chamber due to an SS guard’s unexplained act of kindness, which has instilled in him a sense of gratitude and wonder.

Buergenthal advises that the graduates continue learning by reading, traveling, seeing good movies and plays, developing hobbies, and getting to know and engage with people of different backgrounds.

“Try to learn more about the people and what part of the world they came from. Familiarize yourself with other people and their history.”

As Buergenthal shared the journey that led him to Bethany, he noted that his lack of funds made him lose all hope of attending college immediately after high school.

Although he did not apply to Bethany College because, as a Jew, he felt as if he did not deserve to go to a Christian college, Bethany’s dean of students offered him a scholarship and assistance in finding a job to help cover the cost.

“This is my Bethany story. This is why Bethany means so much to me,” he said.

During the ceremony, Buergenthal was honored with the proclamation of a Bethany scholarship for refugees in his name.

Bethany College president, Rev. Dr. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg, applauded graduates and challenged them to take on the challenges of the world.

You are that continuation of a vision, and you leave here connected to something far bigger than yourself. From this day forward, we will forever have the distinction of calling you Bethany alumni. And that makes us immensely proud.

Baccalaureate speaker Rev. Julia Brown Karimu, as President of the Division of Overseas Ministries and Co-Executive of Global Ministries, was awarded a Doctor of Divinity, presented during commencement by Rev. Janet Long.


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.