Whenever I think of Auschwitz – or Birkenau, or Mauthausen, or Theresien stadt, the names that, in this season of Holocaust remembrance, are coming back to haunt us from 60 years ago – I think of a retired Australian United Nations official called Tom Luke.
Tom wasn’t born Australian, and he wasn’t born Tom Luke. He was born Tomas Lowenbach in 1926 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Hronov, in what was then Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied his country, Tom was expelled from school and put to work as a laborer. In 1942, with his parents and little sister, Tom was sent to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Birkenau followed; then Auschwitz, where his mother and sister were murdered; finally, in January 1945, the death march to Mauthausen, when Auschwitz was evacuated by the retreating German Army. Exhausted, sick, several times close to death, Tom survived.
When the American soldiers liberated him, Tom began a two-year stint in various hospitals, battling for his life. He won, but normal life would not last long; in 1948 the Communists seized power and within weeks tossed the outspoken idealist in jail. This time Tom had no plans to remain behind bars. With his father, his sole surviving relative from an extended clan of over 60, Tom escaped from Czechoslovakia. In 1949 the pair migrated to Australia.
Tom’s next decade was spent supporting himself through manual labor, acquiring an education and a new identity. And when the time came to decide what profession he would devote his learning to, he joined the organization that had emerged, like himself, from the ashes of war and holocaust – the United Nations.
When I first met Tom, he was more than halfway through a 28-year career with the UN working for developing countries and then for refugees. Slight of build, good-looking, with a quirky sense of humor, meticulous about his work, he did not strike me as someone who had endured unimaginable horrors. But one day I saw him in his shirtsleeves, the indelible blackish-green numbers of the concentration camp inmates tattooed on to his arm. Gradually – for Tom is a reticent man – I pieced together his story.
He did not like to tell it. For him the past was only relevant as a guide to the future, as instruction and warning. The values and principles of the United Nations were his own; they had been forged in the same crucible. The work he was doing for the UN was to ensure that what happened to millions like him could not happen again. He toiled for refugees because he had been one himself, but the lessons of his life went beyond that. He could not abide racism of any sort.
Nor could he abide tyranny or the abridgment of the democratic freedoms he had had to flee his country to enjoy. While in Mauthausen he had repeatedly been saved from certain death not by a fellow Jew but by a Czech political prisoner, a former primary school teacher.
That basic human decency was a powerful example in itself, but it also confirmed his admiration for political dissidents anywhere. He made contributions to Solidarity in Poland, traveling there privately in the early 1980s to see how he could help. When Vaclav Havel began his velvet revolution in Prague, Tom, at great personal and professional risk, smuggled printing and publishing equipment into Czechoslovakia to aid the underground press there. He saw no contradiction with his role as a United Nations official, sworn to uphold the rights of its member states. The ideals he was defending were those of the United Nations Charter, drawn up by men and women for whom “never again” was more than a slogan.
Tom is retired and lives in Geneva with his wife. He says he is mildly disillusioned with humanity, and so pleasantly surprised by the acts of courage and decency of which human beings sometimes prove capable. His biggest challenge, he adds with a smile, is learning to live with a deteriorating body. He never mentions the years when his challenge was learning to live at all.
When the United Nations commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Tom’s health would not permit him to travel to New York for the ceremony. He could not have stood at the event, but what Tom Luke stood for is embedded in the foundations of the UN.
Shashi Tharoor is Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. He is also the author of eight books as well as numerous articles.
Reproduced by permission of the author.