'I owe it to the victims to speak'
For years, Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental was reluctant to recall his time in the Nazi death camps. But that slowly changed, he tells Paul Whitington
Towards the end of Gerry Gregg's moving new documentary, Condemned To Remember, Tomi Reichental travels to Merasice, Slovakia, to stand in a small, overgrown plot. On this spot, he explains, once stood the Reichental homestead, a happy house which Tomi remembers with huge fondness. Then, the Holocaust came, and Tomi and his family were carted off to endure the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Over 70,000 of Slovakia's 90,000-strong Jewish population perished in those camps, and so did 35 members of Tomi's extended family.
He survived, was educated in Israel and Germany, and in the late 1950s, moved to Ireland to start a new life. He settled in Rathgar, married an Irish woman, had three sons and for many years was reluctant to talk about the nightmare he'd endured. Then, a speaking engagement at his grandson Josh's school opened the floodgates and Tomi became a tireless witness to the most terrible concerted massacre in human history. "Slowly, slowly I started to talk, and now they can't stop me," he tells me with a smile.
Now 82, Tomi has spent years touring Irish schools sharing his harrowing memories with students. He's also written a haunting memoir and made three documentaries with Gerry Gregg. "I am one of the last witnesses, so I have to speak out, and I feel that I owe it to the victims that they are not forgotten," he adds.
Holocaust denial began almost as soon as the Holocaust ended, and has been prevalent in the Muslim world since the 1970s. But in Condemned To Remember, Tomi Reichental built bridges by responding to a most unexpected invitation. "I first met Shaykh Umar Ul-Qadri (head imam at the Islamic Centre) at a storytelling event in Liberty Hall," Tomi explains. "And as we were saying goodbye to each other, Shaykh Umar told me 'I would love you to tell your story in my mosque'. It was such a surprise to me and I said, 'Are you sure? You don't even believe the Holocaust happened'. And he said, no, this is different, we are progressive.
"I was very well received by everyone and, for me, it was a big challenge. But in the end, it worked out fantastically and it happened to fall on my 80th birthday, so they made a cake. The mosque event was something really special: I'm not sure that a Holocaust survivor has ever spoken in a mosque before."
Tomi has devoted the last 10 years to sharing and explaining the reality of his wartime experiences, but for much of his life, the Holocaust was something he never talked about. "My wife passed away 14 years ago and I never told her anything. She knew I was a survivor, but I never spoke about it, and if any archive films or documentaries were on television, I would just change the station. It was a horrific time and you don't want to dwell on it. But after my wife passed away, I retired and things started to come into my mind, so I decided to write a couple of articles. They were published and suddenly the media were calling at my door.
"Then my grandson told his teacher that his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and the Zion school asked me to come and speak to a class. These were kids 11, 12 years old, and I just went and told them what I went through, and in no time at all, the kids were in tears, the teachers were in tears, I was in tears. Then they wanted me to talk to the whole school. That's when the Holocaust Education Trust got involved, and I began going to schools all over the country. What I noticed straight away was how little the students knew about the Holocaust, how little they were taught. And I got this feeling that this can't be left like this."
Tomi was just six years old when the pro-Nazi Slovak authorities insisted all Jews wear a yellow star, and nine when he was rounded up with his family after being turned in by a fanatical neighbour.
"People often ask me, 'what was the worst thing that happened to you during the Holocaust' and I always say, 'the journey. My father was a farmer but we were comfortable by the standards of the time - we were well-fed, we wanted for nothing. So that's what I was used to as a child, and suddenly you are thrown into this small space, this stinking train carriage with about 50 people - you couldn't even move. Wherever you sat or stood, that's where you were for seven days, there was no way of washing, and no privacy at all. When you went to the toilet, all the family would make a circle around you. Eventually people just gave up, you were like animals. One woman died and her corpse was lying there for two or three days. It was terrible." Tomi's train was bound for Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany.
"It was not an extermination camp in the sense that Auschwitz was, but people were dying all the same. Seventy thousand people died in Bergen-Belsen, and what happened there towards the end was unbelievable."
Seventy-three years later, the cold, the hunger and the horrors are still with him. "In winter, it would be minus 15 or 20 degrees, and we had no coats or anything. The children's shoes would get tight, because we were growing, and we'd cut the tops off so your toes could stick out.
"The food was the same every day. In the morning you got two slices of bread, some black coffee, maybe some margarine. Then for lunch, you got boiled turnip and in the evening, you got two slices of bread again. It was never enough. I remember the suffering of being hungry all the time.
"We were in the women's camp and I remember when we arrived, we saw these people walking around... well they were not people, they were just skeletons with shaved heads and sunken eyes, and no buttocks or breasts or anything. Only after a few days did we realise they were all women, mortally sick: they would walk around very slowly, and occasionally they would fall down, and we as kids would stop when we saw this to see what happened next because we learned that usually when these women fell down, they never got up again.
"Then, later on, the typhus epidemic broke out and soon about 500 people were dying every day. Because so many were dying, the crematoria couldn't cope, so the corpses were just thrown about, you're talking about thousands of corpses lying around, decomposing and rotting away, so you can imagine what the stench was like. And we children were playing among them. When we played hide and seek, we would hide behind the corpses. What did I think about it all? I don't know."
Those lucky Jews who survived, Tomi says, did so "by keeping their tradition and keeping the holidays". "My brother had his Bar-Mitzvah in Bergen-Belsen and this woman made a cake for him from slices of bread and margarine - there were about six layers and a candle on top, so it looked like a cake. And obviously she did this by sacrificing a piece of her own bread and asking others to do the same, just for a boy's Bar-Mitzvah.
"That was our resistance. We still were culturally intact."
Condemned to Remember is in selected cinemas now