Wednesday 24 April 2019

'The rise of right-wing movements is terrible to see...'

Ireland's handful of Holocaust survivors bear brave testimony to a harrowing past whose horrors are more relevant than ever

Mission: Tomi Reichental at home in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Mission: Tomi Reichental at home in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Jadzia Kaminska daughter of Holocaust survivor Jan Kaminski. Photo: Gareth Chaney
John Meagher

John Meagher

Tomi Reichental has many distressing memories from the time that he and his family were incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp, but a couple of them remain indelibly etched in his mind; as vivid to him today as they were when he saw them as a boy.

The first is his confusion, at nine years old, as to why dolls were being thrown into one of the camp's communal toilets. The children could play with them, he reasoned. Why wouldn't the guards allow that? And then he learned, to his horror, that they were not dolls, but newborn babies, taken from their mothers and dumped.

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The second memory is of his grandmother. Like so many others at the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp, she suffered a long drawn-out death caused by starvation and malnutrition. There was no time to grieve after she died. Instead, Tomi's family members were ordered to strip her of her clothes and wait for the trolley to be wheeled in. Guards loaded up her body and then deposited her where a mass of corpses were piling up.

Today, almost 74 years after the camp in northern Germany was liberated, Tomi says such memories will never leave him - and he wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust won't be forgotten by future generations.

Jadzia Kaminska daughter of Holocaust survivor Jan Kaminski. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Jadzia Kaminska daughter of Holocaust survivor Jan Kaminski. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Yet, despite the suffering he witnessed as a child, it would be difficult to imagine a more cheery octogenarian. His love of life is apparent from the first moment you cross the threshold of the south Dublin home he shares with his partner Joyce. "I'm lucky," he says with a heavy accent despite nearly 60 years in Ireland.

"There is so much in my life that I can be happy for. I have three children. I was married happily for 42 years until my wife died. And since 2006, I have a wonderful partner in Joyce. And I made a life for myself in this country and I am very grateful for it."

On the day that Review visits, Tomi and Joyce have just returned from a school visit in the UK. It's a school near Birmingham that he has spoken at on several occasions, and both are touched by the gift that was waiting for him - a striped blazer with the school's crest etched in gold.

For the past 10 years and more, Tomi has been invited to give talks to schools throughout Ireland - and further afield. "I've been to about 500 schools," he says, and he estimates that he has been able to talk about his experiences at Bergen-Belsen to 120,000 students.

"Talking to them from the experience of someone who was there can make it feel very real for them. And it isn't just that they hear the story - many of them probably tell their families and friends, too."

He says it is one thing to learn about the Holocaust from history books, but another thing entirely to hear it from one of those who managed to survive the Final Solution extermination policy that claimed the lives of an estimated six million Jews. "It is so important that it's never forgotten because we have to learn from history and make sure the same mistakes aren't made over again."

Some would not wish to relive the horrors witnessed at the camp or talk about the sense of fear and loathing that marked life in his native Slovakia before his family were rounded up and taken away, but Tomi is different. He recognises the impact his story has on people and how he is a living, breathing reminder of man's inhumanity to man.

"Bergen-Belsen was one of the very worst camps," he says. "Because they let people starve to death. They didn't kill them quickly. I remember some tried to run away knowing they would be shot dead. At least they knew they would have a quicker death that way."

It was at this camp that one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust, Anne Frank, died.

Tomi Reichental is one of only a handful of Holocaust survivors living in Ireland in 2019. Many of the others who came here in the post- war years have subsequently died. He may have cancer, but he is determined to put up a good fight - and when he says that he will continue to tell his story until "they take me away in a box", you believe him.

The day after he chats to Review, he goes to a school in Co Meath to relive the story for a whole new group of students.

Tomorrow marks the country's annual day of commemoration for those who perished in camps like Bergen-Belsen. National Holocaust Memorial Day has helped to keep this especially bleak chapter of World War II in the our consciousness.

An initiative of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, the memorial day has helped renew interest in this dark part of Europe's history over the past decade. The trust has also been instrumental in creating education resources for primary and secondary school teachers and for creating The Crocus Project - which is aimed at children aged 11 and older, and designed to inform them of all the children who lost their lives in the Holocaust.

And that's essential, says Kilkenny-based Jadzia Kaminski, whose Polish father, Jan, survived the Holocaust. "I saw a CNN poll the other morning that was carried out last September and it indicated that up to 30pc of Europeans either never heard of, or know very little about, the Holocaust and as much as 40pc have never even heard of Auschwitz, the most notorious camp of them all.

"I think it's important that those stories are told not just because it's a very important part of history, but also in an uncertain future, it's very important to remember what happened. Just look at the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe today."

Jan Kaminski turns 87 this year and the frailty of old age has kept him out of the pubic eye of late. It means it's up to his children, including daughter Jadzia, to keep his story alive and it's something she is determined to do.

Unlike Tomi Reichental, Jan did not wind up in a concentration camp. Instead, he managed to avoid capture thanks to luck, guile and the kindness of strangers, some of whom risked their lives to shelter him. But countless members of his extended family were not so fortunate and they wound up in death camps. He is the only surviving member of his family today and Jadzia says that fact continues to cause him much distress.

Jadzia says she was aware of the Holocaust from a young age. "I was very young when that whole part of history was told to us," she says. "It was always part of our lives."

And yet, few on the outside knew Jan's true background. "It wasn't common knowledge that dad was Jewish because he hid it for most of his life," she says. "Up to about 25 years ago, he wasn't open about it and that's quite common among survivors."

Kaminski was well known for his work in the Irish travel industry, and as much of his business dealings were in the old eastern Europe before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jadzia says he was not comfortable talking about his background or wartime experience.

"He would go to eastern Europe on tours and was terrified that he would not get out again," she recalls. "None of the guests he was bringing on those tours would have any sense of that, but deep down he was really fearful that when he went through a national border, he wouldn't be let back out again."

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and when Europe started to piece itself together again in the 1990s, his fears evaporated and he came to realise that it was crucial that the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s should not be relegated to the pages of history.

If Jan Kaminski once had difficulty talking about the war, it's a sentiment that is shared by Tomi Reichental. "I didn't talk about the Holocaust to anyone for most of my life," he says. "I didn't talk about it to my wife or to my children when they were growing up. It was something I just didn't want to think about."

After studying engineering in Germany, Tomi arrived in Ireland in 1960 in order to establish a zip-making factory in Dublin. The plan was for him to stay in this country for three years when the manufacturing facility would be up and running, but he met a young Dublin Jewish girl, Evanne Blackman, and they married at Terenure synagogue in 1961.

"I threw myself into work and family life," he says. "I was making a new life in a new country. I didn't want to revisit the past."

He threw himself into work - including several year's working for the jewellery business of Evanne's family - and was well known within Ireland's small, and declining, Jewish population. A change of heart came much later in life.

"After I retired and Evanne died, I had all this time on my hands and I kept thinking about it. I started writing about it in a magazine and then, after there was so much interest, I realised it was important to tell my story."

Tomi published an acclaimed book, I Was a Boy in Belsen, in 2011 and he has made three documentaries. For one of them, he returned to the camp in 2007 - some 63 years after he had last been there. "It felt so familiar," he says. "Even though it had burned down afterwards, a lot of it remained. And it's important that it's preserved because it is a physical reminder of what happened."

No resentment

Visiting Belsen again made the memories even more lucid, but they didn't cause any fresh scars. Tomi's partner Joyce says he is someone completely untainted by bitterness, holding no resentment towards German people, for instance, and after a couple of hours in his company, it's an assessment that's easy to believe.

But the global turmoil of recent times has troubled him, he says, and he contends that the rhetoric from US president Donald Trump about building walls as well as his much-criticised anti-emigration stance has chilling echoes of the past. "The rise of right-wing movements is terrible to see," he says. "We see it in the United States, but also in Europe and Britain, too. Minorities are under threat again."

Jadzia Kaminski points out that the refugee crisis that has engulfed Europe this decade is also redolent of the continent's disturbing past. "I just cannot understand how Europe has not dealt with this crisis. Here we are again, coming back around to a situation where people are having to flee wars and conflict and they're finding themselves in hostile territory where they don't seem to be wanted."

For Eibhlin Byrne, chairperson of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, the lessons of the past are as important today as at any time before. "The Holocaust took place with the understanding of many people in power that it was happening, and it's a reminder that we must be vigilant going forward," she says. "The reason we teach it to children is we do not want the victims to ever be forgotten and we need to ensure it never happens again.

"The Holocaust didn't come out of thin air - it came out of fear and extremism, and that can happen in any time in history. The Nazis were ordinary people - they were brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers - and an event like the Holocaust is not beyond repetition."

It's a message we should remain mindful of, despite the temptation to think of the Holocaust as something that happened a long time ago. "Anywhere you have extremism or where the moderate view is not listened to, there is danger because people become embedded in views and they don't listen to others. You can see that today, especially when one set of people is against another."

But she is keen to point out that there are aspects of the Holocaust that display the human spirit at its best. "There were so many examples of great bravery, kindness and humanity - and that shouldn't be forgotten either."

National Holocaust Memorial Day takes place at the Mansion House, Dublin, tomorrow

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