Thursday 15 November 2018

A survivor of the death camps speaks

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

TOMI Reichental isn't haunted by what he saw as a nine-year-old in Belsen. There are no nightmares of screaming or cadavers. "This is not an unusual phenomenon," he says in his front room in Rathgar 60 years on. "The older people of the Holocaust had this problem of reconciling in their life due to the suffering they went through. The memory for them was much more vivid than the children."

That said, Tomi can still remember the camp's crematoria in January 1945 being so unable to cope with the vast numbers of corpses, that "the bodies were just left there". As far as he could see there were corpses everywhere -- "and these corpses were rotting and decomposing". He recollects that when the British army arrived in April 1945, they said that from two miles outside of Belsen they could smell the stench. Yet Tomi and his big brother Miki didn't even notice. "Us kids," he explains, "we were running between these corpses. That was our surroundings".

Tomi's grandchildren go to Disneyland in America, he says, and they return with the stories of what they saw. "We were in the concentration camp for eight months and we didn't talk about it," he says. "I never told my father what we went through. We never talked about it." His father, Arnold, died about 40 years ago. Nor did he tell anyone in Ireland about his experience in the concentration camp. "My children didn't even know what I went through," he says. "I never sat them down and told them my story. I couldn't do it."

It was only after Tomi started to lecture in schools in Ireland a few years ago and newspapers began writing about his grim experiences that they found out who their dad really was.

When the Nazis entered Slovakia in 1944, the Reichentals decided to leave Merasice and live elsewhere as gentiles, with false papers. Shortly afterwards, they heard that Arnold, Tomi's father, who had stayed behind to look after the farm, had been betrayed by someone in Merasice and arrested. He was put on a train to Auschwitz. As it happened, there was a person on the train in the carriage with Tomi's dad: a Hungarian safe-cracker. That night, he took the saw blade that he had hidden in the handle of his case and cut the chain and opened the carriage and said: "Anybody wants to save themselves -- jump after me."

"My father jumped," Tomi says now of his dad's escape. Unfortunately, there was no escape for the rest of the Reichentals.

In October 1944, they were in Bratislava preparing to go to a safehouse in another village when their grandmother Rozalia was betrayed to the Gestapo. They beat the identities and whereabouts of those who were with her out of the 76-year-old woman. When Tomi's mother entered a shop, the Gestapo were all around her.

"I was waiting with my brother Miki, in another shop 200 yards down the road from my mother. We were going to go to the station. Suddenly, the Gestapo came into the shop and saw us sitting there, two kids. I was at the time nine years old and my brother was 13," Tomi recalls.

"They came straight to us and immediately said: 'You Jewish?' We of course tried to deny it. They slapped my brother a couple of times and he continued to deny it. Then of course they turned around to me -- I was only a little kid -- and they smacked me once or twice and my brother said, 'Stop hitting my brother! We are Jewish!' The Gestapo said: 'We knew you were Jewish. You could have saved yourself the beating.' I remember this distinctly. So we were arrested together with my aunts and uncles and cousins -- 13 of us."

They were taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Bratislava and from there deported to a detention camp where Nazi Alois Brunner had the power of life and death. "This was a very cruel man," Tomi says of war criminal Brunner: "he used to do the selection: 'You go to the right -- you go to the left.'"It was a very cruel way -- separating the mother from the children, from the father. It meant this group is going to die and this group is going to live," Tomi remembers. " And you never knew which was which."

After two weeks in the detention camp, they were called to the roll call. The older people were put to one side and the children and mothers to the other side. When their turn came, Tomi recalls, Brunner turned to "my brother -- because he was very tall -- and he asked my mother, 'How old is he?'

"And if my mother had said he was 13, then he would have been put with the other people, working," says Tomi, explaining that Jews celebrate bar mitzvah at 13 as the transition from child to adult; "the Germans took it that once you are 13 you are an adult. So my mother without hesitation said '12'.

"She must have thought to herself if we are going to die we die together; if we are going to live, we live together. That's why we were together," Tomi says, adding that his uncles and aunt were sent variously to Auschwitz and Buchenwald for slave-labour, "where they perished."

Tomi and his family were sent to Belsen. "They were no gas chambers in Bergen-Belsen," says Tomi, "but unfortunately people were dying there from starvation and from disease", especially typhoid.

"You saw these skeletons walking, he says. "You couldn't even call them people; they were just skin and bone. We actually saw people die in front of our eyes. There was nothing you could do."

During that time, the cruelty, "the punishments and the beatings and the shootings" were unimaginable, he says. In December, it was to get worse when Belsen got a new commandant, Josef Kramer.

"He was very cruel," Tomi says of the Beast of Belsen (in his trial, Kramer showed no remorse when he talked about physically pushing Jews into the gas chambers at his previous camp, Auschwitz).

"He was shooting people for no reason. I saw the bodies. People who would go to the kitchen to look for potatoes skins, he would just pick them out and shoot them. And the roll call area was in front of the kitchen. And every morning, we would see seven, eight, 10 people, left there dead with blood everywhere every day."

In January, when Auschwitz was evacuated by the Nazis because the Russian army was advancing, many of those poor souls were death- marched to Belsen. As its population swelled from about 15,000 to more than 65,000 starvation and typhoid fever became rampant. "People began to die in such quantity that the bodies were not taken away," he says. His mother tried to help them through it. "'She was encouraging us, 'Don't worry. Keep strong. We will get through it'. But it was survival from day to day." The Reichentals never knew what would happen tomorrow. They just wanted to live through this day.

"One time -- for example -- we were taken for showers," Tomi recalls. "we were called to the roll-call and we were told everybody has to take a towel with them." He says that the Slovak Jews knew already in 1942 what was happening. "There were two Slovaks who escaped from Auschwitz and they wrote a book about it. So this is why the Jews of Slovakia were so frightened because they knew the Nazis were killing the Jews.

("But as a kid, I wouldn't have known," Tomi tells me as if it is some sort of compensation).

"I remember we were all marching with an Alsatian dog on each side," he says. He can vividly recall a woman being marched in front of him who took her wedding ring off her finger. She flung it on the ground when the German soldiers weren't looking and said, "I am not going to leave it on my finger that the bastards will get it".

Suddenly, this big building with a tall chimney loomed in front of them. Tomi's mother thought at that moment, he believes, that this was it. All the kids, he remembers, were all holding on to their mothers.

"Everybody had to strip down and we got a piece of soap and it was exactly the way it was happening in Auschwitz: we were brought to this huge room and you had these shower roses above the ceilings."

He can remember that his mother was holding him and his brother tight. They were looking up, waiting for the gas to come. "And of course suddenly the water came," says Tomi.

Tomi Reichental has kept silent practically all his adult life about what he saw in Belsen. It was only when The Holocaust Education Trust found him four years ago that he had to start talking about what happened. He realised then that he was one of the last witnesses alive to "this horrible thing of the Holocaust".

Since then, he has been giving lectures in schools up and down Ireland about what he saw in Bergen-Belsen.

"It was because of that I decided to do this film, I Was A Boy In Belsen. The producer, Gerry Greg, came to one of my lectures and he asked me whether I would like to make this picture. He did a fantastic job," says Tomi.

As soon as he started to talk about Belsen with Greg, a lot of memories came back, he says. Tomi's memories would choke most people to tears. He recalls the little stove in the room at Belsen that his family couldn't use because they didn't have any wood. And how, one day, he and his brother decided to risk their lives to get some wood from a building site opposite their block.

When they ran back to the block with the pieces of wood, the next thing they heard was this SS guard shouting that she wanted to examine the whole block because she saw two people running into the block. Tomi remembers her saying: "They will be severely punished."

"The SS women were more cruel than the men. Severe punishment meant that the whole block would watch her kick and beat someone 'til she killed them," he says by way of explanation. "So the SS woman came to our room. We had six beds. We had put pieces of wood for the fire under the sixth bed. The SS woman checked underneath every bed but the sixth bed.

"'There is nothing here,' she said. It was again so near to a catastrophe. Even today sometimes I talk about it with my brother and my cousins. Imagine what would have happened if that SS woman would have found the wood under the bed? Who would have taken the responsibility? What would my mother and my aunt have said ,because myself and my brother were only kids?"

WHEN the liberation came on April 15, 1945, there was, he says, "no jubilation". Tomi and his brother Miki thought they and a few others were the only children in Belsen. He found out only subsequently that there were 500 children.

"Beside us was the Dutch block and Anne Frank was in that particular block. Of course, I never met her. She got typhoid and she died about two weeks before the British came." Tomi and his family didn't know anything about their father's fate -- nor he theirs. When he jumped off that train en route to Auschwitz he joined the partisans in Slovakia. Tomi can remember the first time he saw his father after the war in July 1945 at the train station.

The Reichentals journey didn't end there. In 1949, Tomi emigrated to Israel with a youth organisation; a few months later his family followed him. Tomi went to a kibbutz where he learned how to work with machinery and welding, before moving back to live with his parents in Nahariya in Israel.

In 1956, he fought in the Sinai campaign against Egypt with the Israeli army. In 1959, he left Israel to live in, of all places, Germany because he wanted to qualify as an engineer. At the time he was asked regularly how could he go to Germany after what they had done to him and his family. In 2009, I still want to know: how could he?

"At the time, the leader of Germany and the leader of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, were friendly. When I saw that the President of Israel was accompanied by a BMW motorbike, I thought now I can go and learn in Germany. There was a different generation growing up in Germany. In actual fact, when I came to Germany I was discriminated in the positive way. Everywhere they wanted to help me," he says. Tomi qualified as an engineer in 1960 in Dortmund. That same year, he received a letter from an industrialist in London offering him a job in Ireland. The man's au pair was a cousin of Tomi's. She told him Tomi was a whizz as an engineer and he would be perfect for the the zip factory he was setting up in Dublin's Upper Mount Street.

"It was extremely difficult to get a foreigner into Ireland to work in 1961," Tomi recalls. In Dublin, he was introduced to a Jewish girl, Evanne Blackman, and they married in Terenure Synagogue on March 12, 1961. He said he didn't want to live in Ireland; he wanted to go back to Israel. They lived in Nahariya for four years and had a son, David, there. But they didn't settle and returned to Dublin in 1965 where they had two more sons: Gideon (41, who lives in England) and Jonathan (38, who lives in Tampa, Florida.) Evanne passed away five years ago from cancer.

"We were 42 years married," he says, "very happily married." Tomi has a partner of three years now, Joyce Weinrib. For someone who nearly died in the death camps he has stuffed a lot of living into his life.

I Was A Boy In Belsen will be shown on RTE One at 10.25pm on Sunday, January 18.

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