HOLOCAUST survivor Tomi Reichental vowed to continue telling his story to help stem the rising tide of racism and intolerance, a packed crowd in the Townhouse Tullamore heard last Thursday night.
People turned up in their hundreds to hear the remarkable Reichental, an 84-year-old Jew from Slovakia, relate the tale of how he emerged from the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to build a successful and happy life in Ireland.
Still sprightly, he sat at the lectern and delivered a gripping lecture with barely a pause for 90 minutes and then spent another half an hour answering questions from the audience.
At the event, which was hosted by Tullamore Toastmasters, a local group which encourages public speaking, Tomi explained how he had remained silent about his childhood ordeal at the hands of the Nazis for most of his life but then decided he had to let everyone know what had gone on.
“I didn't speak about my experiences over 60 years and not because I didn't want to speak, I couldn't speak about it. My wife passed away in 2003 and she didn't know what I went through in my life. I never told her,” he said.
For the past 14 years he has been speaking all over Ireland in schools, colleges and universities, and at private events.
He has also participated in many TV documentaries about the genocide of six million Jews and is the author of two books, 'I Was A Boy In Belsen' and 'Tomi'.
He said he speaks about his experience because “it's very important that the memory of the victims is not forgotten”.
“It's not a very cheerful story but I want people to know that the Holocaust did happen, I was there, I know what it was like.”
He reminded his listeners of a slogan which became popular after the war, 'Never again', but questioned its use following the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s and more recently, Darfur in Sudan.
In all cases, people were slaughtered “just because they were different”, he said, recalling how he had travelled to Srebrenica, site of one of the most infamous mass murders in Bosnia, where 8,300 Muslim men and boys were put to death.
“I am Jewish and I prayed in Hebrew over these graves,” he said.
Referring to the current debate about refugees, Tomi said they were “just trying to find a safe place to live”, as his family had done in the 1940s when the German-backed dictatorship in Slovakia, led by a Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, collaborated in the expulsion of the country's Jews.
“Ireland was always a very generous country. Many Irish people went all over the world, they were welcomed everywhere but today Ireland took only 700 refugees. We could take more, we are a rich country.”
In Slovakia people are marching “with their fists in the air” saying they do not want foreigners or Muslims and “Slovakia is for the Slovaks”.
He said it was only 75 years since he heard similar shouts against the Jews and eventually 35 members of his extended family were killed by the Nazis.
Remarkably, his mother and brother survived Bergen-Belsen, and his father, who had not been incarcerated there, escaped by jumping from a moving train in the dead of night.
His key message was that the Holocaust did not start with the gas chamber, but instead began with whispering, talking, abuse and finally, murder.
He now feared a “right wing element” was getting into power in some places and it had the ideology of the late 1930s. “So it is a very dangerous time that we are living in,” he warned.
“If you see racism around you, if you see bullying around you... don't become a bystander, get involved, make sure these people are shut up.”
Tomi lived in Israel after the war because his community was not welcome back in Slovakia after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp by the British Army but later settled in Ireland where he came to “set up a factory”.
He recalled how the Nazis formally decided over a “five-star dinner” in 1942 to eradicate all 11 million Jews in Europe, including 7,000 in Ireland.
His family could trace their roots in Slovakia back to the 1700s and they considered themselves Slovakian citizens.
His father, a farmer, was in the army and he had an uncle who was in the air force. All changed when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and imposed the puppet president Tiso in Slovakia.
The propaganda against the Jews began but because communications were poor – sometimes the only available information would be from a newspaper left behind by a visitor to the local pub – little was known about the impending genocide.
And if adults knew what was happening, they shielded children like Tomi from the truth.
“Of course our parents never told us because they didn't want to frighten us,” he said.
He said anti-Semitic hatred was spread through the churches and even at Masses the Jews were blamed for everthing, including a bad harvest.
At the same time, Tomi's parents were friendly with the local Catholic priest and it was over a card game with him a few years later this his mother got false identification papers for an escape attempt which ultimately failed.
“In our village, it wasn't that people didn't want to speak to us, we didn't want to speak to them because we would have involved them, that they are the friend of the Jews. In order not to trouble the people there we rather didn't make friendship or speak to them.”
In 1941 the race laws were introduced and Slovak Jews had to wear a yellow star and weren't allowed in public places like the cinema, swimming pool, or park.
Children were not allowed to go to national school. “I was six years old and because I was Jewish I was kicked out of the school,” said Tomi.
He went to a Jewish school in a nearby town and for the first time got abused by other children, who called him a “dirty Jew, smelly Jew” and told him to “go to Palestine”.
They began trying to catch him and spit at him and he would return home crying.
Meanwhile, the persecution of the Jews was stepped up in March 1942 and mass deportations began from Slovakia to Germany, ostensibly to work in munitions factories in Hitler's Nazi reich.
Tomi still sounded disgusted how the Slovak authorities paid the Germans to take the Jews. “This was unique because no other country in Europe ever paid the Germans to take the Jews away.”
Of an estimated Jewish population in the country of up to 90,000, 58,000 were deported and nearly all of those were murdered in extermination camps.
The Reichentals were not deported because as farmers, they were “useful to the economy” and for two years, following pressure on the Slovak government, including some representations from the Vatican, the deportations ceased.
Nonetheless, Jews were still being arrested and they would sometimes lock their house and hide in a cornfield.
“We never knew when the knock would come on the door,” he said.
In August 1944 there was an uprising against the Tiso regime and when it was crushed, the German army occupied Slovakia and the Gestapo arrived in Tomi's home village, placing spies in the neighbourhood to catch the remaining Jews.
“We knew if we stayed in the village it would only be a matter of time before we'd be betrayed by somebody,” he said.
Reichental is a Jewish name so the family needed new identities and the false papers were facilitated with the help of the local priest.
Tomi, his brother, mother, an aunt and a grandmother did get as far as the city of Bratislava, leaving his father behind to follow them later.
However, the would-be escapees soon heard he had been betrayed and taken away and Tomi's mother told him he might never hear from his father again.
Then, to their delight, they got a postcard from him saying “I'm alive, don't worry” but then heard nothing until after the war.
In one of the most dramatic episodes of Tomi's entire entralling tale, he told of how his father escaped from the cattle train which was transporting Jews to their deaths by jumping off it after a Hungarian man sawed a hole in it to reach the latch on the outside.