Concentration camp survivor Tomi Reichental has turned his childhood horror into something positive, speaking out against racism and tracking down Nazis, writes Ailín Quinlan
He remembers barefoot summer days and winters filled with the happy shrieks of tobogganing children.
However, 79-year-old Tomi Reichental has other memories too.
Playing hide-and-seek with his friends around heaps of rotting corpses at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Watching as emaciated inmates fell to the ground in front of him and didn’t get up.
The nightmarish ‘funeral’ of his 76-year-old grandmother Rosalia, who died some months after the family’s arrival at the camp. Her pitiful skeletal body was picked up by the arms and legs, dragged from their hut, dumped on top of a wheelbarrow already overloaded with corpses, and finally thrown onto one of the corpse heaps.
Bodies of victims of starvation and disease being buried in a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen
One of his earlier memories is of being told that from this day forth, he had to wear a yellow star.
Reichental was about six at the time, and he remembers coming to the realisation that he was different from the children who didn’t wear a star and who shouted at him and called him a “smelly Jew”.
There are other memories — being forced to leave the village school in his native village of Merasice in Czechslovakia because of his religion. And of being arrested by the Gestapo, aged nine, with his brother Miki in a shop in Bratislava.
There’s also the horror of the seven-day journey to the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp along with Miki, his mother Judith, his grandmother Rosalia, his aunt Margo, and cousin Chava.
To this day, he can recall the sickening stench from up to 50 people crammed for a week in an airless cattle wagon with no toilet facilities and little food or water.
Starving people waiting at the cook house gate at Bergen-Belsen for rations of potato soup
In the twinkling of an eye, Reichental says, he and his family went from civilised people to being treated like animals.
“In all, 13 members of my family were rounded up that day in Bratislava and brought to a detention camp, Sered, in Slovakia.”
Following a selection process, he and five other family members were sent to Bergen-Belsen where they arrived on November 9, 1944.
The other seven were sent to the slave labour camp at Buchenwald, where inmates were literally worked to death. Only one of those family members survived. Bergen-Belsen, he recalls, was “hell on earth”. “People were dying around us and we could see their corpses around us.
“The inmates around us were like skeletons with shaved heads. We didn’t know if they were male or female.
“Sometimes they fell down and didn’t get up. We saw people dying in front of us. We could see their corpses all around us.“
“Besides, typhoid and diphtheria which were the biggest killers, people were dying of starvation and cold in their hundreds.
“First the bodies were removed and burned but later they were just piling up in front of our barracks — there were piles of decomposing bodies.
“The soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 said they could smell the stench for two miles before they reached the camp.
“In the camp, I couldn’t play like a normal child. We didn’t laugh and we didn’t cry. If you stepped out of line, you could be beaten up, even beaten to death. I saw it all with my own eyes.”
Things got worse in January 1945, which brought such a massive influx of inmates from other camps that the crematorium at Belsen was unable to deal with the vast number of bodies. “They were just left outside to rot, and we as children used to play among the corpses.
“When we were liberated on April 15, 1945, there were 20,000 or 30,000 corpses lying around and the young children were playing among these rotting and decomposing bodies — playing hide and seek behind piles of corpses, ” says Reichental, whose 2014 documentary on the Holocaust has led to an investigation into an elderly woman alleged to be a member of the SS.
Directed by Emmy award-winning Gerry Gregg, Close to Evil which follows Tomi’s quest to find one of the SS guards at the camp, prompted German federal prosecutors to question 93-year-old Hilde Michnia about her alleged role as an SS guard at Belsen — in 1945 she and three others were found guilty of crimes against humanity.
Reichental, who moved to Ireland in 1959, attempted to meet Michnia, who is also suspected of being involved in an evacuation/death march in 1945, on which 1,400 women perished. “I decided to meet her and make a reconciliation with her,” says Reichental , who lost 35 members of his family in the Holocaust and who gives his account of being imprisoned as a child at Belsen concentration camp in his book I Was a Boy in Belsen. The book was actually the catalyst for the documentary — material about Michnia, sent to Reichental by a RTE radio listener who heard him being interviewed, sparked his quest to find her. He was hoping to find a sense of atonement in that meeting, he says.
“I didn’t want to accuse her or to go over history but she never showed any remorse.”
“I had a good intention,” he says, adding that he had hoped that this woman, who had been in the SS at the age of 22 or 23, would accept that she had been brainwashed with propaganda and would acknowledge that she was a different person today.
But it was not to be — Michnia refused to meet him.
“She is stuck in 1945,” says Reichental, who lives in Dublin.
In the film, Reichental, Gregg, and a German television producer contact Michnia at her home near Hamburg but she declines to meet the former child prisoner.
However, after seeing the documentary when it was screened in Germany, one man filed charges through the federal prosecutor, outlining why Hilde Michnia still has a case to answer.
What infuriates Reichental is Michnia’s assertion that the camp commandant somehow brought all those bodies into the concentration camp:
“She implied they did not die there and that he brought them in — such a lie! I was there and I saw them dying every day and that is why Hilde did not want to meet me. She couldn’t tell me these things because I had been there.”
Despite her failure to meet him however, he sees the story as a moral victory because he has been able to refute that claim.
“I have no wish for her to go to prison — she is 93 — it is too late,” says Reichental.
In 2012, he was awarded the Order of Merit, the highest honour that Germany bestows for services to the nation, by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck, for his untiring commitment to furthering mutual understanding, reconciliation and German-Irish friendship. He’s also a recipient of the Global Achievement Award and last December was awarded the International Person of the Year for his untiring work in promoting tolerance, reconciliation, and rejection of racism and bigotry.
Reichental is concerned by the rise in anti-semitism, not just in France but across Europe as a whole, he says, adding that he feels the Irish media is not sympathetic to the Israeli cause.
“The problem in the Middle East is a very complicated conflict,” he says.
“I think there is a misunderstanding of what is happening in the Middle East here in Ireland.
“It’s easier to be anti-Israeli but very difficult to be anti- Palestinian.
“There’s no real understanding of what is happening in the Middle East,” says Reichental, who, it later emerged, only survived the gas chamber by a twist of fate. He learned that the cattle wagon in which he and several members of his family journeyed to Bergen-Belsen, was initially destined for the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
“However, on November 7th, the gas chambers in Auschwitz and Birkenau were blown up and we were diverted to Belsen.
“Ours was the first transport from Slovakia not to go to Auschwitz. If I’d been arrested 10 days previously, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today.”Tomi Reichental is one of the keynote speakers at the 2015 Cork World Book Fest which runs at Cork City Library and the Triskel from April 21- 24. He will make his address at 2pm on Friday April at the Triskel Christchurch. At 8.30pm that night he will also feature in a double bill with author, Evelyn Conlon at the same venue for a presentation entitled Memory & Survival.Festival bookends
Featured writers range from Joseph O’Neill, the Cork-born author of Netherland and Blood-Dark Track, reading from his latest novel The Dog set in Dubai, and poet Paul Durcan, to Canadian authors Lauren B Davis and Charles Foran.
Galway’s Lisa McInerney, whose book Inglorious Heresies, has won rave reviews, and Belfast writer Paul McVeigh, author of The Good Son, a tale of boyhood in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, share the First Novels double bill on Thursday at Cork City Library.
Also on Thursday, Cork poet Gerry Murphy presents his latest collection Muse, while Doireann Ní Ghríofa will present her first English-language collection Clasp.
Censorship will also be tackled under the banner of ‘The Best Banned in the Land’ on Tuesday at the city library.
A documentary on the life and work of Frank O’Connor will be screened throughout the festival.
On Saturday, Cork’s Grand Parade will be filled with book stalls, art and story telling for children.
The UCC Literary journal Quarryman has been revived by UCC’s inaugural MA in Creative Writing group. The first edition launches at the closing event, with special guest Mary Morrissy.
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