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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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