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.
Along with two others, he hid in the forest at night and eventually met partisans and joined them in the fight against the occupiers.
The fateful day for rest of his family arrived on October 16, 1944 when police discovered Tomi’s mother was a Jew by seeing her maiden name on her identification card. They opened her case and saw children’s clothes and pressed her to reveal where Tomi and his brother were, in a shop nearby.
“These two tall men entered the shop,” said Tomi. “We knew right away they were Gestapo, they had the Gestapo uniform, long leather coat, swastika on the arm, hat and polished boot. They came straight to my brother and said ‘You Jewish?’”
Tomi’s brother Miki, then aged only 13 (Tomi was 9) tried to protect him and gave the false names but the Gestapo officers knew the truth and the entire family and relatives, 13 in all, were taken to a headquarters in Bratislava, locked up overnight and then brought to a detention camp before being transported away in a train on a cattle cart on November 2.
Their lives changed in a minute, he said. “When we stood in front of the cattle cart we were still civilised people. We had clean clothes, we were fed, but the moment the door in the cattle cart closed behind us we became like animals.”
There was a bucket in the middle of the carriage for a toilet. Fifty people squeezed in with little room to move for a journey lasting seven days and seven nights.
They were ordered from the train by soldiers and dogs and put on a nighttime march for two-and-a-half hours on November 9 in the rain and cold of northern Germany.
They could see a chimney with a “glow” on the horizon.
“You can imagine the adults among us, what they were thinking,” said Tomi. “I can only remember my mother squeezed myself and my brother to her body.”
After sleeping in a huge hut in bunkbeds overnight they were gathered together and told they were in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a former prisoner of war camp which in 1943 was converted to a holding facility for Jews, JehovahsWitnesses, gypsies, political prisoners, and gay and lesbian people.
Summing up the scene where “skeletons” were walking around, Tomi remarked: “The only way to describe what we saw was hell on earth.”
Typhoid spread and he saw women falling to their deaths where they walked. He and other children used to play in a green area, eating the barest rations of about 600 calories a day, crackers and coffee morning and evening and turnips in boiling water during the day.
Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz but it had a crematorium and it burned 24 hours a day.
“There was a constant stench of burning flesh but after a while we got used to it and didn’t even smell it,” he said.
Most people died from starvation or the typhoid which was spread by headlice. Others could not take the pain any longer and would run to the perimeter fence at night and be shot by soldiers in the watchtowers.
“We would hear these shots during the night and in the morning we find these corpses lying across the barbed wire,” Tomi recalled.
Temperatures plunged as low as minus 25 in December 1944 and January 1945 and the incarcerated would huddle together under a couple of blankets to stay warm.
They awoke in the mornings for a roll call to hear their six-digit number, sometimes standing for hours in the freezing outdoors.
As bad as conditions were for the first couple of months, they worsened when Auscwhitz, the death camp to the east in Poland, was evacuated by the Germans as the Russians advanced.
They were force marched to Bergen-Belsen and some 35,000 are estimated to have arrived at the concentration camp, swelling its population to as much as 60,000.
There was neither room nor food and a typhoid epidemic occurred, resulting in so many deaths the crematorium did not have enough capacity.
Corpses were piled on top of each other and all the while, the surviving children continued playing.
“We played hide and seek, we didn’t hide behind walls or trees, we hid behind piles of corpses.”
Tomi said Bergen-Belsen became an open graveyard and there were about 20,000 corpses when the British Army arrived on April 15.
Prior to that the family suffered their own tragedy when Tomi’s grandmother died. “She was just like a little baby, the skin was hanging from her,” he remembered.
She was thrown on a cart and put on a pile of corpses. “She baked the best cake for me, she read stories for me, and this was how I [last] saw her, this was the funeral.”
Tomi used a number of photographs to illustrate his presentation, including one taken by one of the British rescuers. He can see his brother in the picture.
“I’m somewhere probably as well but I cannot recognise myself.”
In another photograph a group of women can be seen smiling as they prepare a meal with piles of bodies in the background.
“That’s how dehumanised we were at the time.”
Tomi’s mother and brother survived Bergen-Belsen. “My mother was one of the stronger characters. My mother and my aunt, they were very strong characters,” he related.
“I will never forget the evening before we went to sleep that she would come to us and say just keep strong, we will get out of this... she never showed any sadness, she always smiled, she didn’t want to let us down. She was the reason that we all survived.”
His mother lived to the age of 96 and saw grandchildren and great grandchildren. Tomi’s brother is 88 and “also in good nick”.
Tomi, who lives in Dublin with his partner Joyce Weinrib, has made it his mission in recent years to speak about the Holocaust and the risks we run if hatred, bullying and racism are not crushed and called out once they first appear.
“I decided I must speak because I am one of the last witnesses. Anybody younger wouldn’t remember, anybody older is passing away. We’re all in our 80s and 90s.”
Answering questions after his speech, Tomi refused to be drawn into an analysis of the political situation in the Middle East, stressing instead that it was “complicated” with “two sides” but when he goes to Israel “everybody wants peace”.
His speaking engagements keep him busy and in keeping with his policy of breaking down barriers, he will only speak to Catholic and Protestant school communities together when he is in Northern Ireland.
He fears that what is happening today is even worse than when he was a child because back then, people could justifiably say they did not know.
“But today we know it, we see it on the television every day, we see the suffering of the innocent children, mothers, women, men, that have nothing to do with the wars,” he said.
“We look at it like entertainment and we can’t do anything about it. This is the tragic thing, that still today, with all what we see and what is happening, we can’t do anything about it.”
He has never encountered anti-Semitism in Ireland and said he is received everywhere with the greatest respect.
“I found my home in Ireland and the people are most welcoming and friendly to us. I love it.”
He repeated his advice for everyone to be vigilant lest a whispering campaign of intolerance builds again, leading to the horrors he lived through.
“Don’t become a bystander. That’s what happened to the Jews, nobody said anything and by the time they realised what was happening, it was too late and we don’t want a repeat of this.”
He lives by a simple proverb: “Make peace with the past so it doesn’t spoil your present.”
“That’s what I feel, I make peace with my past. It’s no point to be angry and hating and looking for revenge because if you carry this attitude it’s a double edged sword. The people that you hate, they don’t even know that you [are] hating them, but you [are] hating yourself.”
Tomi Reichental came to Tullamore as a guest of Charles Malone, one of the Tullamore Toastmasters speakers on the club’s open night on Thursday. He was introduced by Toastmasters president Pat McAsey and the Toastmaster for the event, Agnes Keenan. Michael Keenan delivered a well received speech before the Holocaust survivor told his story.