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A?life-changing experience

Holocaust survivor: Bethany College was gateway to America

March 12, 2011
By WARREN SCOTT, staff writer

BETHANY - A Holocaust survivor who went on to become an award-winning defender of international human rights told students, staff and guests attending Bethany College's Founder's Day convocation March 3 his education and experiences at the school changed his life.

A 1957 Bethany alumnus, Thomas Buergenthal said as he traveled the familiar roads leading to his alma mater, he "realized what Bethany meant to me and what it has done for me."

"Not only did I receive a very fine liberal arts education here but Bethany College served as my gateway to America," said Buergenthal.

Article Photos

Warrne Scott
LOOKING?BACK – Thomas Buergenthal, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who went on to become a United Nations judicial official, told those attending Bethany College’s Founders Day convocation his experiences and education at Bethany changed his life.

He explained his education had been limited when he came to live in the U.S. and became a student at Newark, New Jersey's East Side High School at the age of 17.

His childhood in Poland had been cut short when he, at the age of 10, and his parents were imprisoned with millions of other Jews at Auschwitz, an infamous network of Nazi concentration camps, during World War II.

In his book, "A Lucky Boy," Buergenthal wrote about his experiences and incredible survival from Auschwitz, where more than 1 million Jews and other prisoners died in gas chambers and from disease and starvation.

Separated from his parents, he was rescued by Polish and Soviet troops when he was 11. He lived in a Jewish orphanage for a while before he was reunited with his mother, who also had survived.

Following their separation at Auschwitz, he never saw his father again.

A guidance counselor at East Side High School suggested he apply to nine small liberal arts colleges, including Bethany, Buergenthal recalled. But after seeing a description of Bethany as a Christian school, he assumed he wouldn't be accepted there.

Still, he was unable to obtain a scholarship at the other colleges, Buergenthal said. The guidance counselor introduced him to Bethany's dean of students, who asked why he hadn't applied.

Buergenthal said when he explained it was because of his religious faith, the dean told him, "Young man, you're in America. Just because you're Jewish doesn't mean you're not welcome at Bethany."

And he was made to feel welcome by staff and students at Bethany, where he gained an understanding and appreciation of American culture and a top-quality education from professors Chandler Shaw, Bill Young, Earl McKenzie, John Taylor and many others, Buergenthal said.

After graduating from Bethany, Buergenthal went on to earn a juris doctorate from New York University Law School and degrees in international law from Harvard University.

From 2000 to 2010 he served as one of 15 judges for the International Court of Justice, a court established by the United Nations in the Netherlands to provide opinions on legal questions submitted by member nations, agencies and the U.N. General Assembly.

Buergenthal also has served as a judge for other international courts and in 2008 received the Gruber Prize for Justice for his efforts to promote the protection of human rights, particularly in Latin America.

He said he's often asked the secret of success and always has replied, "No successful person has ever made it on his or her own. The image of a self-made man is a myth."

Buergenthal said all successful people have drawn upon the knowledge and experience of mentors at times in their lives.

He also encouraged Bethanians to put their long-term goals first, even before opportunities for financial gain, because he's met many financially successful lawyers who were unhappy in their profession.

Buergenthal said too many Americans lack interest in foreign affairs and culture. He encouraged Bethany students to learn a foreign language, join the Peace Corps, study abroad or embrace any opportunity to learn about a foreign culture.

"In your working life, the world will become increasingly interdependent," he predicted, adding, "The more you know about the world and its people, the more appreciative and tolerant of its various cultures you're likely to become."

Each year Bethany College celebrates the anniversary of its founding by Alexander Campbell, who also originated the Disciples of Christ movement that led to the formation of many Christian Churches and Churches of Christ throughout the U.S.

The college received its official charter from the Virginia Legislature on March 2, 1840, was was followed by an affirmation on June 20, 1863 by the newly formed West Virginia Legislature.

As part of the Founder's Day ceremonies, a wreath was laid on Campbell's grave and tours were offered of the Campbell Mansion, where the philosopher and educator initiated the school with a single classroom.

D. Scott Miller, Bethany College's president, noted the many things that have changed since Campbell founded the college in 1840.

He noted that same year Congress authorized funding for the first experimental telegraph, the nation's center of population was Virginia, with much of Appalachia still unsettled; a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln argued his first case before the Illinois Supreme Court and the Civil War was still a generation away.

Miller said more than 22,000 students have graduated from Bethany since it was founded and many have gone on to distinguished careers in a variety of fields.

He said while many things have changed over the years, "The spectacular vistas surrounding the college continue to serve as a symbol of the vision that led to the college's founding."

(Scott can be contacted at

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