A survivor who wants to ensure we learn from the mistakes of the past

I Was A Boy in Belsen, Tomi Reichental

THERE are some experiences that are outside our imagination. We all share complaints every day, in conversations, in the papers, about the state of roads, social welfare, taxation, politicians, the country as a whole. Above that level of inconvenience come those who are struggling with perhaps an illness, a bereavement, a real challenge in life, and trying to find the strength to cope through publishing an article or a book about their problems. Sometimes though comes something which describes anexperience of such hideous enormity that it is difficult to believe anyone could live through it and survive, much less be capable of setting down every appalling detail. We talk about the minor sufferings, but huge ones must be pushed out of sight if the human mind is to remain steady.

That is exactly what Tomi Reichental did for over half a century. It was only when the school attended by his grandchildren learned of his past and asked him to speak to a class, that he pushed open a door that had long remained locked, barred and bolted. A door which led to the world of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, as experienced by a bewildered child of just seven years old.

As a child in a small Slovakian farming village, Tomi enjoyed playing with friends, being spoiled by his grandmother, being in a secure family. It was a happy childhood in a community where all denominations worked for the general good. Then came the rise of the Nazi party and the whispers of unease.

“I remember when we played football and my brother would score, the other children would cry, “Miklos got a goal!” But then it started to change, and I would hear “The Jew scored.” I didn’t understand why. After that we were told we must have a yellow star stitched on our jackets, and I didn’t understand that either.”

When families began to be deported to the camps, the local Catholic priest risked his life to help the Reichentals, arranging false papers, and even teaching young Tomi and Miki the rudiments of Catholic doctrine so that they could blend in more effectively. “He showed us how to make the sign of the Cross, things like that. He was a good man, but there were others in the Catholic church who were only too ready to listen to Nazi directives, alas.” That the Slovak government also willingly aided and abetted the Nazi regime in removing the Jewish population is something he can never forget either.

Eventually, though, Fate caught up and they were put on the train to Belsen. What the family endured, what the young child witnessed in that camp does not make easy reading. He was herded, with hundreds of children, into a huge grey concrete building and could not understand their mothers’ tears of relief when it proved to be a genuine hot shower facility. What, he wondered in his innocence, did they think it might be? He saw his beloved grandmother die, and her body tossed on a heap of corpses. Other parts are too appalling to reproduce here.

Against all the odds, Tomi and his family survived to see liberation come in 1945. He recalls travelling back through a devastated Germany, where local people could not do enough for them, giving all their meagre food supplies, even their beds, as they passed through. “They always said they didn’t know. I think perhaps they did, but they could do nothing. If you were discovered helping Jews, you could be sent to the camps yourself, after all.”

In adulthood Tomi was offered a managerial job in 1960s Ireland. He settled, married, and made the rest of his life. Tragically his wife died not long ago, but Tomi has endured that loss with a resolve which is characteristic of this survivor.

When that first invitation to speak of his experiences came, he was unwilling to open a door that remained shut for so long. Only the thought that he could perhaps help others to see and understand drove him to accept. “It was very distressing to talk of these things, to bring them up from my memory once more, and I broke down during the session. I thought, oh now I have ruined everything, but it seems I had not. The students were weeping too, and the teachers, and they all came around me afterwards and said how important it had been to them.”

Since then Tomi has been much in demand all over and has been the subject of a film and a TV documentary. Revisiting his past, though, never gets easier. “As I describe something, it rises up before me so vividly.” And writing the book was, he says, the hardest task of all. “But it had to be done. I wanted people to learn from it. Because I see what is happening in Ireland right now, and it frightens me.”

What does he mean? “When it all started for us back in the 1930s, people who would have blamed things on the weather, the government, began to blame everything on us instead. We were the cause of all ills, we should be punished. Now with the recession here in Ireland, people are starting to point a finger at those who have newly arrived, those who are not exactly like themselves, and are saying, ‘He is taking the job that I should have. She is getting the things that I do not get.’ Instead of seeing other human beings as fellow creatures, as individuals, they are branding them as outsiders. Just like my brother and I, who had been Tomi and Miki, became ‘Jews’. And that is not good. This terrible thing that happened in World War II must never be allowed to happen again. That is why I always tell the young people when I talk to them, that if they see someone suffering racist abuse, they should speak up, have the courage to stop it. Nobody spoke up for us!”

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