'We saw the suffering of the people, the skeletons walking around, who were there for years'
It was 17 years ago now that Tomi Reichental broke a self-imposed silence and started to speak about his experience of living through the Holocaust. He had sought to deal with the memories of that horrific time in his life by burying them deep inside his subconsciousness.
Then he changed his mind, feeling it would be much better for humanity if he could remind people of just how much the Jews and others suffered under the Nazis. Better to remember so the world would not forget.
He wanted what he and his family had gone through to be put out there as a message to others. Beware of the bully, is the central core of that message.
Reichental has spoken to thousands of people all over the world. “I started to speak out about it in 2004, before then people didn’t even know I was a Holocaust survivor,” said Reichental, who first lived in Ireland in the 1950s.
He has in particular focused on talking to groups of students in Ireland, including many in schools and colleges in Meath and Louth. In recent years he spoke to a group of students in Dunshaughlin Community College and made a huge impression with his courage and willingness to explore extremely dark episodes in his life.
“I like to tell people that if they see bullying they should try and stop it because that’s how the Holocaust started,” he said in an interview he conducted with Noelle O'Connell CEO of European Movement Ireland.
Reichental’s story of how he survived one of the greatest tragedies in human history is as harrowing as it is remarkable.
He grew up in Slovakia a member of a Jewish family that operated a farm in the western part of the country. Young Tomi was secure and happy living in a rural idyll but the storm clouds were gathering.
Persecution against the Jews began in earnest in 1939 but young Tomi’s father received “exemption papers” because he was a farmer, producing food. Other members of the Reichental clan were not so fortunate
“I lost at the time over 30 members of my family, uncle, aunt, my grandparents, they were all taken away. I remember at the time we just said goodbye and they went off. ‘Oh we’ll be re-united and everything will be all right,’ we thought but unfortunately we never saw them again.”
Luck eventually ran out for the remainder of the Reichental family including young Tomi and his mother. They were, with others, crammed into a train bound for Auschwitz in November 1944. However on the way the train was diverted to Bergen-Belsen. The Germans were already in retreat.
“They blew up the gas chambers in Auschwitz, they didn’t want the Russians to find them so they didn’t see any point in sending us there,” he recalls. “If I went to Auschwitz I wouldn’t be here.”
They were instead taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. For the nine-year-old youngster it was like walking into a version of hell.
“We saw the suffering of the people, the skeletons walking around, who were there for years. Even though Bergen-Belson wasn’t an extermination it is estimated that over 70,000 died there, 50,000 Jews and 20,000 prisoners of war.”
As the war came to an end the inmates in Bergen-Belsen were liberated. Tomi Reichental his mother and his brother survived. Tomi became involved in industry and he was asked by a friend to set up a factory in Ireland in the late 1950s.
He settled down and raised a family and ran a zip-making factory. He lived in Israel for a time, remarried, returned to Ireland.
“Life in Bergen-Belsen was a horrific experience. We didn’t speak about it for over 60 years, not that we didn’t want to speak about it but we just couldn’t.”
Even though he is in his nineties now Reichental gives the impression that he will keep on talking about his experiences of his time in the concentration camp system, doing his bit to keep the memories alive; to ensure the world will never forget.
“For 60 years I never spoke, now they can’t stop me.”