In Memoriam: Thomas Buergenthal

May 30, 2023

Thomas Buergenthal

Remembering Professor Thomas Buergenthal

The GW Law community deeply mourns the loss of the Honorable Thomas “Tom” Buergenthal. He will be remembered not only as one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, an accomplished author, and professor but also for his significant impact on international human rights and GW Law. Buergenthal died on May 29 at 89 years old.

Buergenthal spent the first 11 years of his life in various German concentration camps. He came to the United States in 1951, at the age of 17. He graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia and New York University Law School, where he was a Root-Tilden Scholar, and received his LLM and SJD degrees in International Law from Harvard University. Before coming to GW Law, Professor Buergenthal taught at the University of Texas, SUNY/Buffalo Law School, Emory, and served as Dean of the Washington College of Law at American University. Buergenthal joined GW Law in 1989 as the Lobingier Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence. In 2000, Buergenthal left GW Law to join the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where he served with distinction for 10 years. He rejoined GW Law faculty in 2010 for five years and then retired in 2015, where he served as the Lobingier Professor Emeritus of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence.

Professor Buergenthal was an accomplished author, authoring or co-authoring more than a dozen books, including A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy, and numerous articles in scholarly journals. He also served on the editorial boards of various legal journals, including the American Journal of International Law and the Human Rights Law Journal.

Considered an International human rights expert, Professor Buergenthal served as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, including a term as that Court's President; as a judge on the Inter-American Development Bank's Administrative Tribunal; as a Commissioner on the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador; and as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Professor Buergenthal’s legacy and impact will live on at GW Law, where he made a profound impact on students and colleagues alike.

The family requests that gifts in memory of Tom Buergenthal be directed to the Thomas Buergenthal Scholarship Fund.

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Tributes from Professor Buergenthal’s Colleagues

“Judge Buergenthal was a giant in the field of international law, especially in the area of human rights, with the force of his convictions all the more powerful given his personal history."

Sean D. Murphy, Manatt/Ahn Professor of International Law

“Scholar, jurist, teacher, visionary, mensch—Tom Buergenthal let his life speak, turning darkness to light, always with a twinkle in his eye. It is his relentless, incorrigible, and inexplicable faith in the pragmatic power of humane ideals that I will carry with me.”

Ralph G. Steinhardt, Lobingier Professor of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence

"Simply being on the same faculty as Tom was an honor, given his incredible achievements -- his tangible contributions to peace and justice, his service at the International Court of Justice -- and his remarkable life.  But he never let on that he knew.  He was unpretentious, patient, and remarkably kind; he communicated that he cared what you thought, whether you were a colleague or a student just starting out.  Plain and simple, he was, and will be, an inspiration."  

Edward T. Swaine, Charles Kennedy Poe Research Professor

"Today I write to honor the extraordinary legacy and life of Judge and GW Law Professor Thomas Buergenthal, who passed away yesterday. As many of you know, Professor Buergenthal was an icon in the International Law field, making cornerstone contributions as a judge, scholar, and professor, and in many other roles.  I highlight in particular his active role in conceptualizing and shaping so many principles that human rights lawyers apply on a daily basis to protect justice and dignity.  As a Holocaust survivor, he turned deep human suffering into a fruitful career and life full of hope, possibilities, and peace.  I had the privilege of meeting and working with him at GW Law.  There are no words to describe how special he was. He will be sorely missed.  Our International and Comparative Law program is in mourning. I salute today his quest for peace, justice, and human rights."

Rosa Celorio, Associate Dean for International and Comparative Legal Studies and Burnett Family Distinguished Professorial Lecturer in International and Comparative Law and Policy