Belfast Telegraph

'As a boy I played amid bodies of Belsen... now I speak for the victims' - Ireland based Holocaust survivor shares harrowing story

Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental in Belfast yesterday
Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental in Belfast yesterday
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Playing hide and seek with your friends sounds like a perfectly pleasant outdoor activity for your average nine-year-old boy.

But when your hiding place is among the dead bodies piled up at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the childhood game takes on a haunting perspective.

Tomi Reichental, now 84, is a Holocaust survivor. Thirty-five members of his family were among the millions of victims.

For 55 years he kept those memories locked away,

Next Monday will be the 74th anniversary of Tomi's liberation from Bergen-Belsen.

Moving up the employment ladder brought him to Ireland as a 24-year-old. He soon married and has made Dublin his home for the past 60 years.

Fifteen years ago Tomi started to talk about his experience, and his travels around schools and colleges brought him to the Ulster Museum last night at the invitation of the History Teachers' Association of Northern Ireland, where guests watched his latest film, Close To Evil.

It documents his attempts to meet Hilde Michnia, a former SS guard at Bergen-Belsen.

Those attempts failed when the 93-year-old showed no remorse, still in complete denial of the reality of what had happened.

"I wanted her to forget the past and concentrate on the future," said Tomi. "I was prepared to reconcile with her, if not forgive. I know she was a victim of her time, and I always say if I was born into that environment, who knows what I would have done?"

The meeting never happened, despite Michnia admitting she was present at "death marches" in the camp. Legal manoeuvres are still under way in Germany which could hold her accountable.

"She may well yet be the last to face trial for her actions," said Tomi.

Born in Slovakia in 1935, he lived on the family farm until he was nine.

"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."

There was no such luck the second time and October 16, 1944 is a date etched on his mind.

"We found ourselves in Gestapo headquarters," he said.

"From there we were deported to Bergen-Belsen. I was nine. It 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.

"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.

"We would play hide and seek and hide behind a pile of corpses. As children we did not fully comprehend the scale of the crimes committed around us. Children survived better than the adults.

"I didn't speak about it for 55 years. I've started speaking now and I'm not going to stop on behalf of those millions who can't.

"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."

Since finding his voice Tomi has spent his time educating young people with his first-hand experience, working with Dublin based filmmaker Gerry Gregg on three documentaries and writing several books.

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

"The response has been amazing from young people. There is a real difference between hearing this from a teacher and hearing it from me. I was there. After all the horror, I am doing my best to keep the memory of those lost ones alive.

"In the next 20 years no survivors will be left and those who deny the Holocaust ever happened will have a free hand to say what they want. I won't let that happen."

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