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Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental on living through hell on earth

Tomi Reichental, who had 35 family members killed in Nazi concentration camps, will be the guest speaker at Northern Ireland's Holocaust memorial event on Monday. As a child he survived nearly a year in Bergen-Belsen camp, as he tells Leona O'Neill

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Survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Reliving horror: Tomi Reichental

Reliving horror: Tomi Reichental

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Family tragedy: Tomi Reichental (on left) with his mother Judith and older brother Miki

Family tragedy: Tomi Reichental (on left) with his mother Judith and older brother Miki

Tomi's grandmother Rosalia who died in Bergen-Belsen

Tomi's grandmother Rosalia who died in Bergen-Belsen

Lucky escape: Steve Jaffe’s family’s decision to move to Belfast saved their lives

Lucky escape: Steve Jaffe’s family’s decision to move to Belfast saved their lives

Lucky escape: Steve Jaffe’s family’s decision to move to Belfast saved their lives

Lucky escape: Steve Jaffe’s family’s decision to move to Belfast saved their lives

History lesson: Becca Bor has warned of the dangers of ignoring the past

History lesson: Becca Bor has warned of the dangers of ignoring the past

Survivors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental is still haunted by childhood memories from one of Nazi Germany's most notorious concentration camps.

The 84-year-old says the memory most vivid in his mind to this day is that of his grandmother's dead body being thrown unceremoniously onto a pile of corpses.

In total he lost 35 members of his family to the concentration and extermination camps of the Nazi regime.

On Monday, Holocaust Memorial Day, Tomi will tell those gathered at Belfast City Hall to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the foulest genocide perpetrated in modern history, of the horrors he saw as a child and how it can never be allowed to happen again.

Tomi, a father-of-three and grandfather-of-six who made Dublin his home at the age of 24, says he will speak out to ensure history does not repeat itself.

This April will mark the 75th anniversary of Tomi's liberation from Bergen-Belsen. When British troops - which included the late former Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux, then a young RAF officer - arrived to free them the then 10-year-old child was so malnourished he was weeks from death.

"I was born in Slovakia in 1935 and lived on the family farm until I was nine years old," he says.

"My father was a farmer and was considered a useful citizen when they first started rounding up Jews in 1942," he said. "Most of those taken away in the first phase didn't survive.

"On October 14, 1944 I was arrested with my mother and brother," he says. "We found ourselves in Gestapo headquarters. My father was arrested separately. I was taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp which was in northern Germany, not far from Hanover.

"Bergen-Belsen wasn't an extermination camp but people were still dying through starvation and disease. Over 70,000 perished there, mostly Jews, but also gypsies and political prisoners.

"I saw people die on a daily basis. As children we continued to play, but the most tragic time was in January 1945 when many more were transported from Auschwitz. The population grew from 25,000 to 60,000 in a couple of weeks.

"An epidemic of typhoid broke out and people were dying in their hundreds. The crematorium couldn't cope. Corpses were thrown into heaps. Thousands upon thousands of people.

"The stench was unbearable. Conditions were unimaginable. People were skeletons. Occasionally they fell down and we stopped playing to see what would happen. In most cases they never got up.

"I was just nine years old at the time. It is very difficult to describe the time that I spent there as a child. I saw, when I was there, things that I wouldn't wish on anyone. There were experiments, starvation... people were cold, depressed and subjected to cruel treatment by the supervisors. Bergen-Belsen was one of the most horrific places in concentration camps.

"I remember asking people who went to Auschwitz and then came to Bergen-Belsen what did they think of Bergen-Belsen and they said that Auschwitz was a horrific place where over a million people perished, but Bergen-Belsen was 'Hell on Earth'.

"And that is what it was. Thirty-five members of my family died, most of them in Auschwitz, and some in Bergen-Belsen and other extermination camps."

Tomi says one vision stands out in his memory and still breaks him, that of his beloved grandmother's body being dumped onto a cart of corpses.

"I was at Bergen-Belsen with my mother, my brother, my aunt, my cousin and my grandmother," he says. "We lost our grandmother, she died of starvation. Her body just gave up.

"The day of her death, I will never forget how she was treated and how her body was treated. Two men just came to the room and picked up my grandmother - one by the legs, one by the hands - took her out and just threw her onto a cart which was piled high with corpses. This is a memory that I have to carry all my life."

Tomi says that despite death being all around, five of his family survived Bergen-Belsen.

"We were lucky to be liberated in April 1945 by British troops," he says. "By that stage I was in a terrible state. I was like a skeleton. Had we not been liberated at that time, it was only a matter of time that I would have died also. But we were liberated by the Army and I survived. I was just 10 years old at that stage.

"I really don't remember how I felt about what I saw around me at that time. I asked my brother and my mother years later about how I was back then. They said that I was very apathetic. They say I was depressed. I participated in games with other children, but I really didn't laugh as a child. I didn't have a childhood like a child should. I was very shy and inward and what I saw around me must have affected me terribly. I was very depressed."

Tomi didn't speak about what he witnessed for 55 years. It was not until he wrote a book nine years ago that he began to process what he had seen.

"When I was writing my book it sort of processed all my memories, thoughts and feelings on what happened," he says. "I remembered and experienced again what happened as I went through and was writing the book. As I went from day to day, describing what happened, memories came flooding back. Even today, when I am talking about some of the things I experienced, I break down, because I feel the humiliation today more than I felt it as a child. As an adult I realise how humiliated I was at that time. It still, after 75 years, affects me."

Tomi says he didn't speak publicly about the horrors of the camp until after his wife Evanne died in 2003.

"I didn't speak about what happened until after 55 years," he says. "I started to speak about it in 2003 when I lost my wife to cancer and I sold my business. I began to write a little bit about what happened to me as a child. I wrote an article for a magazine. Once I came out about what happened I had many people in the media come on to me and wanted me to speak out. I realised that I was one of the last witnesses to the Holocaust. Because anyone younger could barely remember and anyone older was passing away. I realised that I had to speak, particularly to the young people. They knew very little here in Ireland about the Holocaust. In school, they learn about the Holocaust as part of the Second World War and they devote maybe an hour to it.

"That was the first thing that hit me. And I knew I had to come out and speak about it. The second thing, which was very important to me, is that I lost 35 members of my family in the Holocaust and I owed it to myself and to the victims that their memories were not forgotten.

"That is why I decided to speak up of the horror. And people wanted to listen. I was booked two years in advance to speak at events and schools, colleges and university. I didn't speak of it for five decades and now, no one can stop me speaking. I feel that it is very important that the Holocaust is not forgotten, and so far as I am able, I am going to speak of it."

Tomi has won a plethora of accolades for his work in keeping history alive.

He says he also speaks up to silence those denying the Holocaust ever happened.

"These people are deniers," he says. "They are anti-Semitic. They are lying. I don't feel any connection at all to these people. If I spoke to any of them, I would say to them that I am one of the victims of the Holocaust. I am standing here. And that is what I say to students I speak to. I tell them that some of these deniers will come to them and say that what I say is rubbish, it is Jewish propaganda and they will be able to say to them that they spoke with a Holocaust survivor and they were a real person."

Tomi says that he wants his voice and memories of horror to be heard so that society never lets it happen again.

"History has to be kept alive for the simple reason that we don't want it repeating itself," he says. "Unfortunately today, the times are not very nice. Racism is on the rise, as is anti-Semitism and racial bullying, so people like myself have to remind the people that we need to stop this at the right time. Because we say that the Holocaust did not start at the gas chamber, it started with whispering, the abuse and finally murder, which was the last chapter. We have to stop it at the whispering stage, because if we don't we might find ourselves in a scenario where it is too late.

"Some mad leader somewhere can repeat history.

"After the war there was this phrase 'never again' and people called it out and shouted it, it referred to the Holocaust. But we can't say it today because we had genocide in various parts of the world since then.

"We had Srebrenica, a genocide against Muslims, in the middle of Europe, in civilised society. I stood in the Srebrenica graveyard where 8,300 boys and men are buried. They were ordinary people who were massacred just because they were Muslim. So we can't say today, never again.

"We have to be very careful. People shouldn't become bystanders anywhere. If they see something they should get involved and try to stop it or report it to the authorities.

"The world is becoming very dangerous again and we have to teach the young people. If they see any bullying, racism, they must tell. When I was a boy nobody spoke up.

"I can see history repeating and education is the most important thing. People need to know, they need to tell their families, their friends."

The Northern Ireland Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration will take place at Belfast City Hall on Monday evening. The event will also feature poetry readings by Michael Longley and Maureen Boyle, as well as a performance by Lagan College Choir. To register for tickets log on to: eventbrite.co.uk. For more information email: hmd@executiveoffice-ni.gov.uk or call the HMD organising team on 028 3751 5033

'If my grandparents hadn't left Poland I wouldn't be here now'

Steven Jaffe, co-chair of Friends of Israel, who grew up in Belfast but now lives in London, says that in the Seventies and Eighties there was a thriving Jewish community in the north of the city.

"I grew up in north Belfast," he says. "Then there was a significant Jewish community there. At the time there was around 250 people there, in the Seventies and early Eighties.

"The synagogue is up in north Belfast on the Somerton Road. When I was growing up there was a Kosher butchers -for Jewish meat - and there was a delicatessen that specialised in Jewish food, all along that stretch of the Antrim Road.

"It was a small, but very vibrant and close-knit Jewish community that I was brought up in."

Steven's ancestors hailed from Poland, a place he visited recently and was reminded that had they not left, his family history would have been among the ashes in the nearby concentration camp.

"My great grandparents emigrated from Poland in the late 1800s," he says. "They came to Belfast from the city of Lublin, which is around 100 miles south of Warsaw. When my great grandfather left, there were 40,000 Jews living in Lublin. And when I visited the city in the Eighties, there is a huge concentration camp there called Majdanek. It is literally about 15 minutes from the city centre.

"While I was there I stared into this deep collection of ashes which were the only remains of over 100,000 people who were murdered there. That is where my family came from. It was my great grandparents who moved away from there, my grandparents moved to Belfast as children. And that was very common within the Belfast Jewish community. Most of the members came from Eastern Europe and they would have arrived in what is now Northern Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th Century, as part of a big wave of emigration. Well over a million Jews left Eastern Europe, most of them went to America.

"That would have been before the Second World War. My mother was eight-years-old during the war. Over a million Jewish children were killed during the Holocaust. So you just think, that would have been our future had my family stayed there. I wouldn't be here today.

"My family went from Poland to Belfast, but my great grandfather could never settle there. He thought that there was security in the big numbers. There were 40,000 Jews in Lublin, all the traditions in that community went back centuries. After landing in Belfast in 1890, he brought all the family back to Lublin in 1906, but then left again for Belfast, making the journey back again and making Northern Ireland his family's home. On that very decision hangs the fact that I am here.

"The towns and villages that the Belfast Jews came from became the killing fields of the Holocaust," he says. "They were right at the centre of it in Lithuania and in Poland. This is where Jewish people were murdered literally by the millions."

Steven says growing up in Belfast, his Jewish faith and identity were nurtured and allowed to thrive. However, he says that modern society has allowed a dangerous anti-Semitic element to grow.

"Mine was a strong identity that never leaves me," he says. "The Northern Ireland side of things as well as Jewish side. I live in London now, but I am back so many times during the year, in some ways I never left Belfast. Growing up during the Troubles in north Belfast, such a troubled area, I think the Jewish community were respected across the sectarian divide. And the synagogue in Belfast was a place where Protestants and Catholics could meet in a neutral environment. We were very much part of the local community, but kept our distinctive faith and identity. But the vast majority of my friends when I was growing up would not have been Jewish. The community was quite small, there were about 150 of us. We were very well integrated into the wider community in Belfast.

"At that time I don't remember an awful lot of anti-Semitism in the Seventies and early Eighties. The Troubles were raging during those years. But in my role in the last number of years, representing the Jewish community we have sadly seen an increase of anti-Semitism. Our cemetery off the Falls Road was desecrated a couple of years ago. The windows of the synagogue have been attacked on a number of occasions and indeed there was a video of an Israeli journalist who went into a pub in Derry and someone said that Hitler didn't kill enough Jews. It shows that this history of ant-Jewish sentiment is present in Northern Ireland.

"We have a far right, neo-Nazi element. And we have on the left an anti-Israel, pro-Palestine current there which is viciously anti-Semitic."

‘Politicians must not fan flames of division’

Thirty-five-year-old Becca Bor is originally from Boston in the United States. She has lived in Northern Ireland for almost six years with her partner Shaun and their son Aodhan. Her ancestors hailed from Poland and Russia.

"My family would be from Poland and Lithuania," she says. "From a place that was once called Dvinsk. My great grandparents came to New York from what was then Russia. They came in the early 1900s when lots of Eastern European Jews came to the United States and Britain also. My grandparents met in New York. My grandmother would have had family in Poland who were caught up in the Holocaust.

"The reason they left Russia was because of the pogroms and the anti-Semitism there. Although we are commemorating the Holocaust, which was horrendous, there is also a very long history in Europe of anti-Semitism.

"The thing about growing up Jewish is that you always learn about the Holocaust and other times of anti-Semitism. I do feel a connection with it. The first thing we say is 'the horror'. We remember what happened and we learn about it. The second thing we say is 'never again'. That is the mantra of not letting history repeat itself. I think right now is a scary time as we see an increase in anti-Semitism in Europe."

Becca says that as the world gathers to remember the Holocaust, she hopes that world leaders will look to the future, as well as the past.

"The Holocaust commemoration is not one just for the past," she says. "It is really important that today's political leaders, if they are commemorating the Holocaust, make sure that they are not part of anything that encourages and fans the flames of division, fear and hate, and the politics of fear that is very much a part our politics across Europe right now as well as in the United States.

"It's a politics that is going to create more hate and division. I think it's really important that in any commemoration, we think about what we are doing today in order to make sure that people are united, support one another and are standing in solidarity, defending each other if there are any attacks. Whether those are physical attacks or even just the language of division, it can all be very insidious."

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