‘What I witnessed as a nine-year-old boy is impossible to describe. The starvation, the cruelty of the camp guards, the cold and disease. People, who were just skin and bone and looked like living skeletons, were walking around very slowly, some of them dropping to the ground, never to get up again.
“They were dying in their hundreds, their emaciated bodies left where they fell or thrown into heaps. In front of our barracks there were piles of decomposing corpses. For many prisoners in Bergen-Belsen, the conditions were too much to bear and they threw themselves on the barbed wire at night to be shot in order to put an end to their misery. We found their corpses there in the mornings.
Seventy thousand prisoners of Bergen-Belsen are buried there in mass graves. I lost 35 members of my family in the Holocaust
They are the words of Tomi Reichental, a man who survived the Holocaust and has lived in Ireland since 1959. He is a man who can smile, who has raised a family, who has spoken to tens of thousands of people about his experiences. I find it extraordinary that he is only 15 years older than I am — in different circumstances, he could have been my older brother.
That’s how close we are to the Holocaust. We want to think of it as ancient history, but it isn’t. It was unspeakable, unforgiveable, and it has to be unforgettable.
Hundreds of us listened to Tomi speak at the Holocaust Memorial on Sunday in the Mansion House in Dublin. His quiet voice is the one that stays with you. The great and the good were all there, and it was an intensely solemn and important occasion. But the thing you remember most is an old man who lived through it, and whose dignity and courage radiated through a large room.
The Holocaust is remembered throughout the world on the same day every year — it’s the anniversary of the day that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. Perhaps that was also the day that the rest of the world’s eyes began to be opened to the horror that Hitler had deliberately propagated.
The conduct of the ceremony on Sunday night told its own story, building on a series of events that culminated in industrial techniques of slaughter, and that was, I imagine, deliberate. Although the Nazis planned from the beginning to rid Germany and the Third Reich of the Jews, it wouldn’t have been possible for them to do what they did unless they first succeeded in casting them as “others”.
Nazi ideology described Jews as sub-human, and as carrying responsibility for everything that was wrong with the world. A programme of propaganda built on that theory of hate enabled endless forms of discrimination, aimed at making life more and more difficult for Jewish people. Jewish books were burned in rituals as a way of making them seem degenerate. Businesses were boycotted, individuals were forced to carry papers marking them out as Jewish, laws were passed to deprive them of the ordinary rights of citizens, pogroms and ghettos were ways of forcing them into extreme deprivation.
And then the killing started, culminating in the final solution. One of the reasons why it was in the end considered necessary and desirable to kill so many Jews by poisoning them in gas chambers was that it was so efficient. But it also spared soldiers and stormtroopers from the possible psychological harm of having to look them in the eye while they shot them.
And of course it wasn’t just Jewish people. David O’Brien, who has Downs syndrome, read a passage at the ceremony about how 300,000 people with disabilities were murdered because a calculation had been done that showed how the cost of caring for them was so much more expensive than a lethal overdose, or in many cases, starvation.
There is of course another point to the remembrance of the Holocaust. President Higgins on Sunday night spoke about how “refugees, immigrant communities and other minority groups are increasingly viewed as a threat to the rights of the majority and many achievements … are under threat by a new generation of extremists who view those universal rights as a threat to their own individual rights”.
As the UN family gathers in at #UNHQ New York this morning to commemorate #Holocaust Memorial Day, we recall the remarks of @PresidentIRL Higgins at last night’s commemoration in Dublin. #HMD2019— Ireland at UN (@irishmissionun) January 28, 2019
Read the President’s speech at: https://t.co/pYI26vgjNf pic.twitter.com/09H1LmMImY
For most of the ceremony, the hall was dominated by a huge picture of the hideous barbed wire fence that stretched around Auschwitz. It was impossible to look at the picture without thinking of the fear it must have generated. No-one could leave, and surely no-one would ever want to enter. Row upon row of razor sharp wire, and manned guard posts every 20 yards, it was designed to strike terror. It seemed to stretch forever.
But you couldn’t look at it either without thinking about the fact that there is an elected leader in a democratic country in our free world whose core values all seem to be centred on building a giant wall. Day after day, he issues messages aimed at placing the people who are threatened by that wall in the category of other.
On Sunday, President Trump issued a statement about the Holocaust, in which he talked about the need to prevent such horror and suffering from happening again.
He referred to his statement in one of his famous tweets.
In the same hour he issued another tweet, saying in capital letters: BUILD A WALL AND CRIME WILL FALL.
Of course there’s no equivalence between what Trump is doing and what Hitler did. But hatred is made easier by characterising people on the basis of their skin colour or their ethnic origin as “other”. Trump has been doing that since the moment he decided to run for the presidency, with complete disregard not just for truth but also for the passions he stokes.
We have no permanent memorial to the Holocaust in Ireland. We’re lucky to have a tiny organisation, which functions as a charity and has a core vision of creating awareness of the Holocaust and its consequences. Its work focuses on education and is vital.
It is also strongly focused on the principles of the Stockholm Declaration, adopted at an international conference of which we are a part. The Declaration matters because of the unique character of the Holocaust — unique in its depravity and extent, and also unique in its planning and the fact that it was underpinned by an ideology of hatred.
The core sentence of the Declaration commits those who support it to recognise that because humanity is “still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils”.
People gather in Ireland once a year, with good intent, to hear from the survivors of the Holocaust and to ensure that it is never forgotten. It’s time, surely, for us to erect a permanent memorial somewhere in our capital city, to ensure that all of us are reminded constantly of the evil of which man is capable. Perhaps it could contain an inscription like the one on the cover of the Holocaust Education Trust leaflet. Tell your children about it,
and let your children tell theirs, the next generation.
They were dying in their hundreds, their emaciated bodies left where they fell or thrown into heaps