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NEVER AGAIN: SUR VIVORS TELL OF 'HELL ON EARTH' I N DEATH CAMPS

A witness to the Holocaust, Tomi Reichental (79), lived through hell when he was just a boy - but the Bergen-Belsen survivor has made it his mission to commemorate those who weren't so fortunate.

As the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the Allies was remembered, the Dublin-based retiree wants people to re-affirm the vow of 'Never Again'.

Tomi, who lives in Rathgar, was born in 1935 in Slovakia, a place he still considers his home.

Anti-Semitism was rife and growing during his early years.

During the first phase of the deportation of Slovakian Jews, 30 members of his extended family were taken away.

"One day we said goodbye, not realising that in perhaps a week they perished in Auschwitz," he explained.

Due to their agricultural background Tomi's family were able to escape displacement at first.

However, as the war escalated the Reichental family knew that their luck would soon expire. They acquired false papers and made arrangements to flee their home.

But Tomi was captured in 1944 before they could depart Bratislava when his 76-year-old grandmother was betrayed and viciously beaten.

Along with his mum, grandmother, aunt and brother he made the journey in a crowded cattle carriage.

The unsanitary, inhumane conditions foreshadowed the fate that awaited them in the work camp. During the journey he witnessed his first death as a fellow prisoner simply collapsed where he stood.

"It was the first time I ever saw a dead body," he recalled.

When they reached the camp life soon settled into a hellish routine for the family.

Each day began with a roll-call where they would be forced to wait in the snow for the camp guard. "They came like models - they were immaculate. They had lipstick on, lacquer on their nails but all of these things were deliberate - designed to show they were the masters and we were rubbish."

All around him people were starving to death.

As children, he and his friends would watch as people simply dropped to the ground, waiting anxiously to see if they would get up.

His daily diet consisted of bread, black coffee and turnip soup - around 600 calories a day at best he now estimates.

"When you eat like this for months after months the body begins to eat itself form the inside and you become a skeleton. Eventually you die and it's a very painful death," he said.

Though it was a labour camp and not a death camp, a combination of a starving population, overcrowding and outbreaks of Typhoid propelled an ever climbing death toll inside the razor-wired surrounds.

Despite working 24 hours a day the onsite crematorium was unable to cope with the overwhelming level of death in the camp.

BODIES

Bodies eventually began to pile up on the grounds of the German camp.

"They were at least four high as far as the eye could see," Tomi noted.

Tomi and the other children grew accustomed to playing amongst the rotting corpses.

His beloved grandmother tragically did not survive the camp.

He recalls the guards coming to collect her body, which had to be stripped of all her clothes.

"She looked just like a baby and they just grabbed her by one arm and one leg and threw her on [a cart]," he explained.

When British soldiers came in April 1945 there was no immediate jubilation - people were too afraid to leave through the now unguarded gates.

But their incarceration was over and they would become known as the few who survived one of the most notorious camps in Europe.

He later moved to Ireland in 1959 and settled in Rathgar.

It took the brave survivor more than 50 years to express his story. His wife died 12 years ago having never heard his story.

BRAVE

"I thought I owe it to the victims to make sure that their memory is not forgotten," he commented.

As commemorations take place this week, Fr Hugh O'Flaherty will be in the minds of many.

The Killarney priest assisted some 6,500 prisoners of war escape Nazi capture in Rome during the war.

Decades later he is still celebrated as a hero by pupils of his old national school.

Jerry O'Grady chairs a trust dedicated to the memory of the brave Kerry priest.

"He was one of Ireland's greatest and bravest heroes," he said.

"He seldom spoke about what he saw - either in public or private," he explained.

In one of only two media interviews the priest spoke abut the "dark times" of trying to stay ahead of the Gestapo.

"A friend of his recalled that he was moved to tears when he re-visited some of the sites later in Rome," Mr O'Grady added.

- Laura Larkin


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