Former American University Washington College of Law Dean, Thomas Buergenthal, Passes Away at 89

Remembering the Life of Human Rights Advocate and Holocaust Survivor Thomas Buergenthal

Thomas Buergenthal served as AUWCL dean from 1980 to 1985.

The American University Washington College of Law community mourns the loss of esteemed human rights advocate and Holocaust survivor, the Honorable Thomas Buergenthal. The former judge and author, who served as dean of the law school from 1980 to 1985, passed away on Monday, May 29 at the age of 89. 

Born in Lubochna, Czechoslovakia in 1934 to Jewish parents, Dean Buergenthal’s family moved several times to avoid the growing fascist presence in the region. Dean Buergenthal’s father moved the family to Poland shortly before the German invasion in 1939. 

His family was forced into the Jewish ghetto in Kielce, Poland, living there for four years until they were deported to Auschwitz in August 1944.  As the Soviet Army was advancing on Auschwitz in January 1945, Dean Buergenthal and his fellow prisoners were forcibly marched away from the camp to avoid rescue. He was one of the few children to survive the three-day forced march and was one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Buergenthal was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp after the march. 

Following his liberation from Sachsenhausen in April 1945, Dean Buergenthal lived with his mother in Göttingen, Germany, before emigrating to the United States in 1951. While in the United States, he earned a BA from Bethany College in West Virginia, a JD from New York University, and a LLM and SJD from Harvard.  

A survivor of the Holocaust, Dean Buergenthal dedicated his career to international law and human rights, serving as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (1979-1991), a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (1995-1999), and a judge on the International Court of Justice at the Hague (2000-2010). 

Professor Thomas Buergenthal discussed his Holocaust experiences during a conversation with Professor and Dean Emeritus Claudio Grossman in 2019.

Dean Buergenthal received numerous awards for his work in the international human rights community, including the Gruber Prize for Justice, the Elie Wiesel Award from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and the Manley O. Hudson Medal for outstanding contributions to scholarship and achievement in international law from the American Society of International Law.

Dean Buergenthal also authored many books and articles on international law and human rights, as well as a memoir about his experience during the Holocaust.  

“I had the privilege of getting to know Tom and his remarkable life when we were colleagues for many years at GW Law School, where he served as the Lobingier Professor Emeritus of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence,” said Dean Roger A. Fairfax, Jr. “Our faculty offices were not far from each other, and I treasured the opportunities to chat with Tom and learn more about his tremendous story.” 

During his five-year tenure as Dean of American University Washington College of Law, Dean Buergenthal expanded on the school’s history of social progressiveness and dedication to equality, overseeing the creation of the Women and the Law Program in 1984. His enduring legacy stands as a powerful testament to the invincible spirit of humanity and serves as a compelling reminder of the ongoing imperative to strive for a world that is equitable, just, and inclusive for all. 

Story by Brice Helms.