Monday, November 9, 2015

Learning compassion from absolute horror

One of the things which dismays me most about the seemingly never-ending “conflict” between Israel and Palestine is the way in which a people who suffered so much (or their descendants) have been able and willing to inflict such suffering on others.

It forces you to question human nature when you see how Zionists have occupied, colonised, and demonised the people of Palestine over the past seven decades; even though we should never forget the absolute horrors which prompted so many Jewish people to seek a new homeland in the 1940s.

It’s appalling to think that there were 11 million Jewish people living across Europe at the start of World War Two and that the Nazis’ insane “Final Solution” resulted in the loss of six million of them in just a few years.

Europe should, rightly, feel shame. That shame extends to the island of Ireland, where a closed society in its second decade of independence effectively shut its doors on the persecuted Jewish people who tried to flee the Nazis in the 1930s. 
Tomi Reichental wore a yellow star during his talk in Galway

Our own shameful history was alluded to during a talk in a crowded lecture hall in Galway yesterday, when a survivor of the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp said that lessons from the Holocaust should be applied to the current refugee crisis facing Europe.

Over 300 people crammed into the lecture hall at NUI Galway to hear Tomi Reichental speak, and everyone of us was overwhelmed by his generosity of spirit as he recalled a childhood which was unthinkable to every Irish person in the room.

Tomi has written an absorbing book about his experiences as a Jewish child in war-time Slovakia and his subsequent transfer to the concentration camp where so many people lost their lives.

Just nine years old when he was captured by the Gestapo, Tomi urged Irish people to embrace diversity and to learn to live with different traditions when he referred to the thousands of refugees who are currently fleeing the Middle East for new lives in Europe.

“People tend to blame other people for their problems,” said Mr Reichental. “We have a lot of foreign people in Ireland now. If you hear somebody blaming somebody else because they are a foreigner or have a different skin colour, speak out. Don’t become a bystander. Get involved. It’s wrong.

“In the 1930s, Ireland closed the door to the Jewish people. We have a refugee crisis across Europe now. We have to learn to live with different traditions and embrace them, not to exclude them. The Holocaust must not be compared to anything that has happened since, but we must learn from it.”

Mr Reichental, who lost 35 extended family members in the Holocaust, said that he did not speak about his experiences at Bergen-Belsen for over 55 years.

He never discussed his experiences with his late wife, although she knew he was a Holocaust survivor. It was only when he retired, and after she passed away, that he began to write down his experiences 12 years ago.

He has since become a hugely popular figure with schoolchildren all over Ireland, as he regularly tours the country to talk about the Holocaust and what it was like to be a nine year old boy playing among piles of decomposing corpses.

“It is very important that I can speak to as many people as I can, because I feel that I owe it to the victims. I lost 35 people from my family. By speaking to young people, I hope that the memory of the Holocaust will be carried for generations to come,” he said.

“For over 55 years, trauma stopped me from speaking about it. But there are not many of us left, especially here in Ireland, who can talk about our experiences in the concentration camps.”

Tomi recalled an idyllic early childhood in rural Slovakia, where his family had been a part of the community for generations. All that changed when he was six years old, when the Government introduced harsh anti-Jewish laws.

“In 1939, the propaganda against the Jews began. Hatred was building up against Jewish people. I remember my aunt sewing a yellow star onto my coat. I was kicked out of the village school because I was Jewish and had to attend a separate school in the town.”

Yesterday, he wore a yellow star on his jacket with pride, to remind everyone in the room of the indignity faced by people living under the Nazi regime.

He said that deportations began in 1942 and 58,000 Jewish people were transferred from Slovakia to Germany. His father, a farmer, had a special document which allowed him to stay because he was contributing to the Slovak economy.

But his parents eventually had to flee their home village. They changed their names and he was with his mother, grandmother, brother, aunt and cousin when they were picked up by the Gestapo in Bratislava in 1944.

He recalled the crowded ‘cattle car’ which transferred them to Germany and the fear in the eyes of the adults, who had heard about the gas chambers and extermination camps from people who had managed to escape and return to Slovakia.

“The moment the door closed behind us, our civilised life ended. I will never forget it. There was no privacy, no hygiene. I remember the smell and that people were crying. The people in the camp were like skeletons in their striped pyjamas. Their heads were shaved and we could not tell if they were men or women.”

He said Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp, but people could not live on the amount of food they were allocated each day. The calories allocated to the prisoners were insufficient for many of them to survive.

“There were 1,000 people living in huts which were designed for 200 people. We used to play ‘hide and seek’ among the decomposing corpses. That’s how dehumanised we were. We were living in this open graveyard for months, with bodies all around us,” he told the audience.

“Typhoid and diphtheria were the biggest killers, but people were dying of starvation and cold in their hundreds. The soldiers who liberated the camp in April 1945 said they could smell the stench for two miles before they reached the camp.”

Mr Reichental moved to Ireland in 1959, but said he never wanted to talk about his experiences until he retired in 2004. Since then, he has spoken to thousands of students in schools all around Ireland and featured in an RTE television documentary. 

“My wife never knew what happened to me,” he said. “She just knew I was a Holocaust survivor. I lost her to cancer 13 years ago. Then I retired 12 years ago. I thought I would enjoy my retirement, but then I realised I needed to tell my story. I realise now that I am one of the last witnesses of this horror and I feel that I owe it to the victims.”

During a question and answers session after his talk, I was the only person in the audience to raise the issue of the occupation of Palestine with him.

I asked him whether or not it upset him that Palestinians were now being “dehumanised” by the Israeli media, and Jewish people “dehumanised” by the Palestinians, in ways which were eerily similar to how Jewish people were portrayed, horribly, in the German and Slovak media in the 1930s and 1940s.

Clearly uncomfortable with the subject, he said that the Middle East should not be judged by the same standards as European countries.

He said that he had served in the Israeli Army for a while in the 1950s and had never, ever been trained or taught to hate the Palestinians.

His message was one of peace and he encouraged the Irish to embrace refugees, to offer them meaningful and viable lives, as a response to the current crisis.

Children in a Nazi concentration camp
Mr Reichental received a standing ovation at the packed NUI Galway lecture theatre, before staying on to sign copies of his book, ‘I Was a Boy in Belsen’.

His powerful story was a timely reminder of the absolute horror which led to the foundation of the state of Israel, even though I firmly believe that the Holocaust no longer provides an excuse for how badly the Palestinian people have been treated under the occupation for decades.

Those of us who care about Palestine and the Palestinians sometimes tend to forget the trauma suffered by the entire Jewish population of Europe just seven decades ago.

Not that the Holocaust provides any excuse for the barbarism inflicted on the people of the West Bank and Gaza in recent years.

Like Tomi, we all have to learn from the horrors of the past, to ensure that people are never discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or their religion. If we were all a bit more like Tomi in respecting diversity, there might be some hope for the people of Israel and Palestine.

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