VIVID MEMORIES?Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental holds up a picture of children who were liberated from a Nazi camp in 1945.?Pic: Conor McKeown
Belsen boy tells tale of Holocaust horror
RESEARCH published by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has revealed there were around 20 million people killed by the Nazi regime during the 2nd World War in over 40,000 Concentration Camps. Last week, in a moving talk, Bergen-Belsen survivor, Tomi Reichental, told Westport secondary school pupils about the grim and sordid reality of this relatively recent war and about the important lessons that must be learned.
‘Hell on earth’
FOR a nine-year-old boy it was like ‘hell on earth’. Diseased, dying people, everywhere, so skeletal it was unclear if they were men or women. All around the stench of burning flesh from the crematoria suffocated the air. Male guards in perfectly tailored uniforms and their female colleagues with lacquered nails and bright lipstick shouting orders: “Schnell, Schnell.”
Piles of rotting corpses littered the clearings around the edge of the forest as far as the eye could see. This was the playground at Bergen-Belsen – the ‘Horror Camp’ as it was known back then – where young Tomi Reichental ducked and dived with his older brother, Miki.
It sounds more nightmare than reality. But for over 60 years after his liberation with family members from the notorious Nazi camp in 1945, he never spoke about his experiences there. A native of Slovakia, Tomi never talked either about how anti-Semitism meant he had to wear a yellow Star of David to school where, aged six, he was repeatedly bullied and abused. He never talked about how the Gestapo found himself and his brother in a shop in Bratislava, on the verge of escape with their mother, who had been furnished with new identities by a local priest. Or how on April 15, 1945, British soldiers arrived at the camp. In one of their jeeps there was a BBC broadcaster, the late Richard Dimbleby, who was the voice behind the first film the western world witnessed of the Nazi concentration camps.
Even though he had a long and happy marriage, living in Israel first and then Dublin since 1965 with his wife, who died ten years ago, he never talked to her, or his sons about the horrors of his childhood. Instead he looked forward, using the maxims: “Make peace with the past, so it won’t spoil the present,” and “Life must be understood backwards but it must be lived forward.”
However, for the last eight-and-a-half years Tomi Reichental, realising that he was among a fast-diminishing group of survivors, has given regular talks about the Holocaust to young people, here in Ireland, in the UK and the US and even to German students last year in Bergen-Belsen. He feels privileged to do it and doesn’t charge any fee.
“I owe it to the victims,” he says modestly.
His reply was also simple when, during a lively question-and answer session after his talk last week, a Sacred Heart School student asked him: “Why did Hitler hate the Jews [and allow the atrocity to happen]?”
He replied simply: “I didn’t know why it happened then and I still don’t know today.”
“But I do know that racism is on the rise today, recession is a breeding ground for it. Ireland now has many minorities and we must tolerate them; people often try to blame others for their own problems. Don’t be a bystander if you see somebody being abused because they are a foreigner or have a different skin colour” Mr Reichental said.
THE Holocaust lecture was a Sacred Heart Secondary School, Transition Year initiative. It was organised by teachers Elaine Hamrock and Gearóid Ó Riain and attended by History and TY students from the SHS and senior cycle History students from Rice College.
MORE Memoir, ‘I Was a Boy In Belsen’, by Tomi Reichental, O’Brien Press.
Why do you think Tomi Reichental didn’t speak about his time in Belsen for 55 years?
ON hearing his story it was clear to me that Tomi Reichental hadn’t spoken about his experiences, prior to the last eight years, out of genuine fear and shame. Ashamed that he was a victim, that this was his reality, that these crimes could even be committed against people. How do you put in words, an experience like his, where people were stripped of everything, moral and physical, they possessed? No name, no dignity, just a number. It’s through the silence of the years that Tomi has learned to cope, and can now come forward and educate us about an event that should never be repeated again.
- Megan Nevin, Fifth Year.
What was the most shocking revelation in his talk?
FOR me, it was that it all actually happened. That the Holocaust was very real, not just text in a school book or the setting of a Hollywood movie. The realisation that an attempt to exterminate an entire race occurred a little over half a century ago. That every one of the victims of the Nazis were real people, with families, friends, homes and with lives that were stolen from them. Having a survivor of this ordeal share this experience, was eye-opening, as well as immensely captivating.
- Amy Ralph, Transition Year.
Do you feel Irish society is racist?
I feel that Irish society as a whole is not racist, however there is a small minority of people who act racist towards other ethnic groups.
Ireland has become more culturally diverse in recent years and due to immigration there are many different nationalities and cultures. Migrant workers from countries such as Poland and Lithuania have been discriminated against as has the travelling community. I believe there is only one race... The human race.
- Tanya Heraty, Sixth Year.