jueves, 23 de octubre de 2014
A lesson from the Holocaust: Tomi Reichenau, "I was a boy in Belsen"
BY the end of the Second World War, the Nazis had murdered six million Jews in Europe. One and a half million of these were children. Tomi Reichental was only 9 years old when he was sent to Belsen concentration camp. Last week, the Irish-based Holocaust survivor retold his grim story to Limerick teenagers.
INSPIRATIONAL Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental, who was imprisoned at the Bergen-Belsen death camp by the Nazis when he was just nine-years-old, gave a harrowing account of its daily horrors to Limerick teenagers last week.
The 79-year-old, who has been based in Dublin since 1959, lost 35 family members during the Holocaust and described his experiences in the notorious concentration camp as “hell on earth” during his talk to 160 senior cycle students at Ardscoil Mhuire in Corbally.
Author of the memoir ‘I Was A Boy in Belsen’, Tomi was born in Slovakia in 1935 and starts his riveting lecture by recalling the “happy times” of his early childhood growing up on his father’s farm in the small village of Piestany, 80 miles from Bratislava.
“I grew up in a farming community of 700 inhabitants, and although we were Jewish, we were integrated into the village. I have fond memories,” he said.
However, by the time he was six, the world had distorted into a grotesque shape as Hitler’s Nazi Germany set about creating a ‘master Aryan race’ and obliterating the Jews from existence.
Tomi’s parents did their best to protect him and his older brother from the horrors taking place in Europe. But, with all Jews obliged to wear a yellow star, classmates took to verbal and physical abuse and soon, school was no longer an option for the Reichental children. The nightmare beginning for Tomi and its true evil would soon be inescapable for him and his family.
“People began to hate the Jews. Our lives were restricted with lots of silly regulations and life became very difficult. Jews could not go to school, ride a bicycle or drive a car, or go to public places like cinemas and swimming pools and they could not work. We found ourselves strangers in our own land,” he told the Ardscoil Mhuire students.
“I didn’t feel different as a young child but I started to ask why do they hate me so much?” he added.
The gentle, affable old man went on to recount childhoods days spent hiding out in fields to avoid capture from the SS and the constant fear of being taken away as “whispers” of the extermination camps and gas chambers spread like wildfire throughout an already fearful Jewish community.
In 1944, supplied with false papers and new non-Jewish aliases through the aid of a Catholic priest, Tomi and his brother left for Bratislava with his mother. Word soon got back to them, that his father, who decided to stay and keep the farm running was arrested by the SS and taken to Auschwitz.
“Thankfully, he survived and I found out when I was reunited with him after the war that he managed to escape when he jumped from a moving train with a Hungarian safecracker and a third man. He then joined the resistance and fought against the Nazis”.
In Bratislava, Tomi, his brother, mother and grandmother, were not so lucky after being betrayed as Jews and arrested and beaten by the Gestapo. Thirteen family members were captured that day, and only five survived.
After seven days in a dark and cramped cattle truck with 60 other people, Tomi and his family arrived in Bergen-Belsen in the dead of night on November 9, 1944.
Greeted with shouts of “schnell schnell” (quickly quickly), dogs barking, the glare of searchlights and a solid week of being treated worse than an animal, Tomi says they were disorientated and starving, but relieved to finally stretch out, soaked and exhausted, in the barracks’ wooden bunks after a further two and a half hour march through soggy forests.
“The first thing we saw were the tall chimneys. Imagine the horror of what must have been going through the adults’ minds after whispers of gas chambers?
“This place was hell on earth,” he said.
“People were so emaciated and starved that they looked like skeletons. They did not have the attributes to tell if they were men or women, they just looked like skeletons.
“The guards were very cruel and we were constantly hungry. People would do anything to try and escape the suffering, but there was no escape. So they would walk towards the barbed wire fence and the soldiers would see them and shoot them. Suicide was their end to it all.
The chimneys in the crematorium were going 24 hours a day and we got used to the stench of burning flesh. People would fall down around the camp and most of the time they would never get back up.
Typhoid and starvation were epidemic and, as children, we used to play hide and seek among the piles of dead bodies, which were piled four feet high.”
Liberated from the Nazis in April 1945, Tomi also recalls the sound of the Allied tanks and jeeps approaching and the relief as they entered the gates of the camp after their captors fled four days earlier.
The Dublin-based pensioner did not talk about his experiences for 55 years, but for the past nine years has traveled to schools and universities up and down Ireland and abroad to tell of his dark experiences under Nazi rule.
“My story is a story of survival and Holocaust survivors are a dying breed. It is important that this story is told to young people so they can teach their families and their children in the future,” he explained to the Limerick Post in Corbally last week.
Ardscoil Mhuire principal Collette McGrath described Tomi as a “great storyteller” and said it was a “privilege” to have him tell his story to senior students at the school after taking up art teacher Mike Connor’s invitation.
Close to evil
DURING a two-hour talk at Ardscoil Mhuire in Corbally last week, Tomi Reichental brought one of history’s ugliest chapters to life as he gave a chilling account of life in a Nazi concentration camp.
Teachers and students fought back the tears as Tomi, now 79, told of the hellish reality of Bergen-Belsen, which claimed over 70,000 lives under brutish Nazi depravity. His grim tales of playing among piles of rotting corpses as a 9-year-old boy, who lived with death always a hair’s-breadth away, were, at times, hard to take.
An extraordinary man, he told the Limerick Post after his riveting lecture that he believes it vitally important for his message of tolerance and reconciliation to be gifted to today’s youth.
“It is important that we remember. There is racism in Ireland and we need young people to use their voices and not stand by silently. They must use their voices to stop injustice,” said Tomi.
RTE recently made a documentary about the Holocaust survivor called ‘Close To Evil’, in which he travels to Hamburg in the hope of meeting one of his former jailers — the SS guard, Hilde Lisiewicz.
A convicted war criminal who was found guilty of crimes against humanity, Hilde Michnia, as she is known today, still denies that she beat prisoners to death.
Tomi discovers during the making of the film that the unrepentant and defiant Lisiewicz was a participant in a forced death march of female prisoners from Gross Rosen concentration camp in Poland, but is still prepared to reach out to her.
“I was not looking for an apology, but I was hoping she would have courage and show remorse for her actions. Unfortunately, she is still living back in 1945. She too is a victim of those times,” Tomi told the Limerick Post.
Tomi Reichental lost 35 family members in the Holocaust.
At the end of ‘Close To Evil’ the big-hearted pensioner embraces a German woman who honestly faces up to the terrible legacy of her grandfather Hanns Ludin, the Nazi Envoy to Bratislava, who was responsible for sending Tomi to Belsen.