A childhood at play amongst bodies of the dead

Joe Schmidt

I Was a Boy in Belsen - Tomi Reichental, with Nicola Pierce (O'Brien Press, Dublin 2011)

Tomi Reichental's candid life story takes us through his idyllic early childhood and his hard-working and rewarding adulthood and the fearful years which separated the two: deportation to Bergen-Belsen, during the Second World War.

There's nostalgia as Reichental remembers his childhood in rural Slovakia. His father's farm and the small privilege of having a maid, his grandmother's baking, the apples of autumn, the snow in winter and the freshness of spring and summer.

The text is readable and logically sequenced to allow for historical background, and is well divided to follow the various members of the extended Reichental family.

Restrictions on Jews gathered momentum during the war. The 'voluntary Aryanisation' of Jewish property and business was followed by the liquidating of Jewish businesses, limitations on withdrawals from the bank, confiscation of valuables, extra taxes and finally deportation.

As the Jews became increasingly vulnerable, isolated from other Slovakians and branded by the yellow stars they had to wear, Tomi and his brother Miki were abused and bullied, sometimes from former friends.

It was the same for the entire Reichental family and on the evening of August 15, 1942, Hlinka guards arrived to deport his grandparents. The years from 1942 through to 1944 were spent hiding to avoid deportation. There are some tense moments but, with childhood naivety, these are reported without embellishment.

Tomi and Miki's sudden capture by Gestapo agents in Bratislava in 1944 and their inhuman transportation, along with their mother and grandmother hint at the brutal and miserable months to come.

The dark days in Belsen are described in unemotional but depressing detail. Tomi reflects on the 'latrine dolls' and his lack of understanding that they were, in fact, dead infants. He saw his grandmother's body being removed and then played among piles of dead bodies because they had became part of the landscape as they piled up in their thousands.

The horror of Belsen is described but not dwelt upon as it is diluted with glimpses of hope: the Hungarian girls who helped with food, the strength and leadership of Tomi's Aunt Margo and the final liberation by British soldiers.

There are some original black and white photos of Tomi's close and extended family, many of whom did not survive. But the photos have them smiling, just as Tomi's determination is worth smiling about as he describes his life after the war including his move to Israel and his time spent in Dublin.

Books like this need to be read. Memories like Tomi Reichental's need to be shared.