Tuesday 21 November 2017

Holocaust victim on a mission to make sure his story survives

TOMI REICHENTAL: One of the last survivors of the holocaust
TOMI REICHENTAL: One of the last survivors of the holocaust
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

As Tomi Reichental sat and chatted with friends at the Irish Film Institute cafe last week, there was nothing to suggest he had been on an epic journey. There was nothing to suggest he had survived the holocaust, when 35 members of his family were killed, and there was nothing pointing to the fact his life is serialised on film.

"We got four stars in the reviews last weekend," he proudly boasts. "Orient Express, with its wonderful cast, only got three."

Tomi (82) has lectured at more than 500 schools and regularly speaks at public events. The recognition is important because he wants as many people as possible to know what happened to him.

At the age of nine, Tomi, his older brother and mother were taken from their home in Slovakia and imprisoned in the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Here, he saw people starve, heard executions and watched dead bodies pile up as people were overcome by illness, disease and malnutrition brought on by mistreatment and abuse.

"I am one of the last survivors of the holocaust. If we are to make sure that we do not make the same mistakes again, people need to know what happened. I need them to know and then to carry my story because someone needs to tell of those who died in Bergen-Belsen after I am gone."

After Bergen-Belsen was liberated Tomi eventually moved to Ireland in 1959, married an Irishwoman and raised three sons. However, it is only in the past 10 years that he has started telling his story.

"The fact I did not talk about this for 50 years was, I think, nature's way of protecting me from the memory of what happened."

He has now featured in three documentaries and tours the country visiting schools and speaking at events as part of a quest to make sure the world never forgets the events that marked his life.

The most recent documentary, Condemned to Remember, is part of a trilogy of movies made by the award-winning director Gerry Gregg about Tomi's life.

It sees Tomi track down a convicted war criminal who was one of the SS guards who marched him to Bergen-Belsen. He investigates the rise of neo-fascism in eastern Europe and visits the sites of some of Europe's worst and most recent atrocities.

Throughout the film, there is a sense that Tomi is not happy with what is happening in the world. He mirrors his own story with the ongoing migrant crisis and asks if Europe has learned from the mistakes of the past.

"We are making the same mistakes. In the 1940s Jews were presented as not being compatible with the rest of Europe's norms. Now, the Muslim community is being presented the same way."

Sunday Independent

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