Tomi Reichental – Holocaust survivor interviewed by Tuam Herald
A HOLOCAUST survivor detailed the unimaginable horror of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II to students in Tuam recently. Describing his earliest memories following his birth in 1935 in Piestany, Slovakia, Tomas (Tomi) Reichental gave teenagers from Presentation Tuam and St. Jarlath’s College an insight into Nazi-occupied Poland through the eyes of a child.
“I grew up in a world where Jews had no citizenship. The Nuremberg Laws were passed the year of my birth and my people were excluded from everything. Nazi Germany under Hitler were intent on creating the Aryan race, a people of blue eyes and blonde hair, with no room for mixed blood, and set about creating an abhorrence of all things Jewish across Europe,” said Tomi.
“I was four years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and the mass execution of Jews began. I remember my childhood on a small farm in Slovakia and yet to me it was the biggest place in the world, until the Nazis came.” Tomi explained to students how the Slovak government sold their own people to the Nazis under laws even more severe then the Nuremberg laws.
“I was six years old when the Nazis made us wear a yellow star on our clothing emblazoned with the letters Jude (Jew). It was the first time I realised I was different from other children. Everybody now knew I was Jewish and my whole world changed. I was beaten up and called names and would come home crying from school every day. My family told me to be a good boy and I had no choice but to bear the insults and the bullying. Little did I realise things were about to get even worse,” said Tomi.
To the death camps
The expulsion of Slovakia’s Jews to the death camps began in March 1942. Fascist Slovak leaders were so impatient to be rid of Jews they paid the Nazis 500 Marks for every Jew they deported and were the only Nazi satellite regime that paid cash to speed up the expulsion of its own Jewish community. Tomi Reichental was among those deported.
“The Nazis particularly targeted women and children in an attempt to destroy the future of the Jews. I watched as my aunts and cousins were led away and we did not even cry for them. We did not know that just 48 hours later they would die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz,” said Tomi.
He explained to students how the Jewish population in Slovakia dropped from approximately 90,000 to 25,000 as Nazis murdered his people in concentration camps across Germany.
“We heard whispers filter through that our people were not going to camps but to gas chambers, but we could not believe such talk so we carried on and did what we were told by the Nazis. Things were worsening in our village and you could be shot on the spot if the Nazis suspected you were Jewish. But my father had many friends in the village who would warn us to hide if the Nazis were around. I remember a lot of hide-and-seek between 1942 and 1944 as we tried to avoid deportation,” said Tomi.
Face to face with the Nazi regime
However, Tomi and his family came face to face with the Nazi regime when a unit of SS swooped on their tiny village.
“My father was taken to Auschwitz. What I would later learn was that en route he jumped from the moving train with a Hungarian man and that is how he survived. “We did not see him again until after the war as he joined the resistance against the Nazis,” said Tomi.
The Gestapo came across Tomi’s 76-year-old grandmother in a shop in Bratislava. “She was betrayed as Jewish and the Nazis beat her up until she gave them details of her family, then one by one they found us all,” said Tomi.
Are you Jewish?
“Are you Jewish?” I remember them shouting at my brother. “No I am not,” he replied. “You are, your grandmother and your mother said you are. Are you Jewish?!” he roared. “Then they turned to me and began to beat me, which was the final straw for my brother. “We are Jewish,” he said. “And we were brought to the shop where my mother and grandmother were being held,” said Tomi.
Of the 13 of Tomi’s family captured that day, only five survived. The other seven perished at Auschwitz. “I don’t know how we survived the selection process but we stayed together and were put in a cattle carriage with 60 other people bound for Bergen-Belsen. I can still smell those disgusting carriages we spent seven days in during a freezing November 1944.”
“Once a day the train stopped to empty the barrel which stood in the middle of the carriage that was used for our bodily needs. The door would open with a crash and everyone panic stricken inside in the dark, as beams of light shone upon us. Then we marched for about two hours through the mud and pouring rain with the Nazis shouting “schnell schnell” (quickly quickly) with dogs barking on each side of us and nobody asking where we were going. And so to our new home in hell,” said Tomi.
Tomi and his family arrived at a wooden barracks with bunk beds, drenched and exhausted. “We were just glad to have a roof over our heads and to finally sleep. Every morning we awoke to the shrieks of a whistle and sometimes stood for up to two hours in the snow until the SS commander arrived. When the crematoria could not cope with the number of people dying of hunger and illness the dead bodies were just slung in a heap outside our barracks. As children we just played around them and the stench was unbearable, but we knew no different. Children are children and that was what we knew so we became apathetic to it. All we cared about was not becoming one of the decaying corpses on the heap and making sure were we not in the line of fire when the Nazis randomly practised their shooting on human targets.”
Tomi explained how food at the Nazi camp was contaminated. “We lived on a diet of black coffee and bread but the water was contaminated so typhoid and diphtheria became rampant among us. Anne Frank died of typhus in the wooden barracks next to ours when she was transferred to Bergen-Belsen from Auschwitcz. If the Nazis didn’t get you, disease or hunger would and we watched as hundreds of people became skeletons or developed infections and literally fell to the ground dying a very slow and painful death,” said Tomi.
“Our mothers would invent games and huddle us under the blankets together to help us try and forget our hunger, but it was always there. We were lucky as we were the group the Germans would present to the Red Cross to show the outside world they were looking after us. The Nazis would close the camp for 24 hours and we would be hurried to another barracks and given chocolate. It is one of my nicest memories and I think this is the only reason we were kept alive. Some people could not bear the torture of starvation and would climb the barbed wire, before being shot dead. They knew they could never escape but had decided it was a better fate than the misery they were in and I remember seeing their bodies left slumped over the wire.”
Tomi described liberation from the Nazis in April 1945 in quite simple terms to Tuam’s students. “One day the guards were gone and the gate of the camp was left open, but nobody left. We were all too afraid and just wondered at the open gate. Then some jeeps rolled in and one had movie cameras on it as the Allies filmed the conditions of the camp. They gave us food, which was a bad idea as our stomachs had shrunk and many people continued to die as they could not digest it. Typhoid was still rampant in camp, so it was decided to contain people until it could be dealt with,” said Tomi.
With news of Hitler having committed suicide, blaming the Jews for the war, Tomi told of his return home, before opening the floor to questions from the Tuam students. “We were re-united with my father and then I went to study in Germany,” he said. “Didn’t you hate the Germans by then? Why would you go to university in their country when it was their people who murdered your family?” asked one Tuam student.
“Not all people within a culture are evil and I have no gripe with the German people,” replied Tomi. “We were innocent children who simply did not understand what was happening to us, so how can I lay the blame on all Germans?” he said. “Do you think the German people colluded with the Nazis or were they powerless against them?” asked another student. “I think it went much deeper than colluding,” replied Tomi.
“A lot of them stayed silent and that did more damage than any menace ever could. They should have stopped to think about the minorities who fared worse then the Jews in the hands of Nazis and faced a death much more horrifying than the gas chambers. “Gypsies, mixed-race children, disabled people and homosexuals, who the Nazis hated more than anyone, all burned in the flames of the Nazi ovens. And there are still some Germans who to this day will not apologise for the atrocities they inflicted on those poor people,” he added.
“The German people could have tried to save those people, but maybe they were afraid for themselves. I feel afraid when I hear people say the Holocaust never happened. I feel nothing but pity for the ignorance of such people and I say shame on them, because they should know better,” said Tomi. “One and a half million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis and thousands of other innocent children perished because they were considered not worthy of a life. Why would I hate these people? That would make me the same as them and I will never be that.”
Irish Independent Book Review: History: I Was A Boy In Belsen by Tomi Reichental
Holocaust literature is a vast and lucrative business. Indeed, as survivors continue to become increasingly rare and their unique stories die with them, to be lost forever, it is vitally important that we all read as many of these accounts as we can — the survivors deserve to be borne witness to, after all. Having said that, there are some examples of Holocaust writing that seem to be almost the literary equivalent a violent slasher movie, such is the ferocity and brutality and sheer unbelievable savagery on display.
Indeed, I have only recently finished one book about Majdenek death camp which contained a passage about a guard called ‘Mr Hammer’ because of his proficiency at killing children with one — you don’t sleep easily after absorbing something like that.
Tomi Reichental’s memoir of his time in Belsen and his subsequent life and eventual move to this country does not scale the heights of depravity as evidenced by ‘Mr Hammer’ but it is a vital, important and worthy book, albeit one which could have been edited more tightly.
Having lived a life of bucolic bliss in rural Slovakia, where his family were one of the most respected in the town, their world as they knew it ended forever on one cataclysmic day in October 1944 when the Gestapo finally caught up with them — some of their former friends and neighbours weren’t so friendly or such good neighbours after all.
Eventually, Tomi, along with his mother, brother, grandmother, aunt and cousin ended up in Belsen, where a new life in hell begins.
Reichental talks movingly of how desperately the parents of young children tried to keep them from hearing about the gas chambers and the horrific final fate that was in store for them.
As he was only nine, and with a protective mother trying to shield him from the Dante-esque horrors that were being perpetrated around him on a daily basis, it’s obvious that he must have missed some of what was going on, but that doesn’t stop him from vividly describing the constant sense of dread and terror that they lived with on a daily basis.
And alongside the psychological torment they were forced to endure, there were the physical deprivations also — the perishing cold, the inadequate clothing and, of course, the gnawing starvation that never went away.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, there was the camp administration to worry about. The camp commander was none other than Josef Kramer, a vicious sadist who encouraged his staff to emulate his style, which they did with relish.
Reichental recalls, almost dispassionately, watching a female camp guard beat an inmate almost to death and he recalls how vivid the woman’s blood looked; he remembers the ‘latrine dolls’ which were actually the bodies of dead babies that had been discarded in the stinking, fetid hole that was the camp latrine.
He also remembers watching his grandmother’s corpse being thrown on a pile of rotting bodies as the kids played obliviously around them.
It’s an almost endless litany of humiliation, violence and whole-scale, systematic slaughter, the planned eradication of an entire race from the face of the earth.
Upon liberation, he returned to his home town in Slovakia but just because the war was over didn’t mean that attitudes towards Jews had changed — there were pogroms still happening for years afterwards and any Jew returning from a camp looking to retrieve their property from their neighbours faced as much a possibility of being shot as actually receiving their belongings.
Having joined a Zionist group, he emigrated to Israel as a teenager and then moved to Germany to become an engineer.
Then, in the latest move of his peripatetic life, he moved to Ireland in the late 1950s for his job. While here, he met and married an Irish girl and had three children.
For a country that should shudder with shame every time we think about our role in the war, the fact that Reichental found a good life in Ireland and was happy here — he became a full Irish citizen in 1977 — is a source of some comfort, and the differences between the two worlds really hit home when you move from one chapter about living in hell in a death camp to then blithely talking about the synagogue in Terenure.
Like many survivors, he remained silent for over 50 years before deciding that he had to bear witness to what he had seen.
And to that end he still gives talks to schools and other groups about his experiences, trying to educate the ignorant the dispel the myths of the misinformed.
If you have the chance to hear him talk, take it. Until then, this moving book will be a handy replacement.
By Ian O’Doherty
TOMI Reichental isn’t haunted by what he saw as a nine-year-old in Belsen. There are no nightmares of screaming or cadavers. “This is not an unusual phenomenon,” he says in his front room in Rathgar 60 years on. “The older people of the Holocaust had this problem of reconciling in their life due to the suffering they went through. The memory for them was much more vivid than the children.” That said, Tomi can still remember the camp’s crematoria in January 1945 being so unable to cope with the vast numbers of corpses, that “the bodies were just left there”. As far as he could see there were corpses everywhere — “and these corpses were rotting and decomposing”. He recollects that when the British army arrived in April 1945, they said that from two miles outside of Belsen they could smell the stench. Yet Tomi and his big brother Miki didn’t even notice. “Us kids,” he explains, “we were running between these corpses. That was our surroundings”.
Tomi’s grandchildren go to Disneyland in America, he says, and they return with the stories of what they saw. “We were in the concentration camp for eight months and we didn’t talk about it,” he says. “I never told my father what we went through. We never talked about it.” His father, Arnold, died about 40 years ago. Nor did he tell anyone in Ireland about his experience in the concentration camp. “My children didn’t even know what I went through,” he says. “I never sat them down and told them my story. I couldn’t do it.”
It was only after Tomi started to lecture in schools in Ireland a few years ago and newspapers began writing about his grim experiences that they found out who their dad really was.
When the Nazis entered Slovakia in 1944, the Reichentals decided to leave Merasice and live elsewhere as gentiles, with false papers. Shortly afterwards, they heard that Arnold, Tomi’s father, who had stayed behind to look after the farm, had been betrayed by someone in Merasice and arrested. He was put on a train to Auschwitz. As it happened, there was a person on the train in the carriage with Tomi’s dad: a Hungarian safe-cracker. That night, he took the saw blade that he had hidden in the handle of his case and cut the chain and opened the carriage and said: “Anybody wants to save themselves — jump after me.”
“My father jumped,” Tomi says now of his dad’s escape. Unfortunately, there was no escape for the rest of the Reichentals.
In October 1944, they were in Bratislava preparing to go to a safehouse in another village when their grandmother Rozalia was betrayed to the Gestapo. They beat the identities and whereabouts of those who were with her out of the 76-year-old woman. When Tomi’s mother entered a shop, the Gestapo were all around her.
“I was waiting with my brother Miki, in another shop 200 yards down the road from my mother. We were going to go to the station. Suddenly, the Gestapo came into the shop and saw us sitting there, two kids. I was at the time nine years old and my brother was 13,” Tomi recalls.
“They came straight to us and immediately said: ‘You Jewish?’ We of course tried to deny it. They slapped my brother a couple of times and he continued to deny it. Then of course they turned around to me — I was only a little kid — and they smacked me once or twice and my brother said, ‘Stop hitting my brother! We are Jewish!’ The Gestapo said: ‘We knew you were Jewish. You could have saved yourself the beating.’ I remember this distinctly. So we were arrested together with my aunts and uncles and cousins — 13 of us.”
They were taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Bratislava and from there deported to a detention camp where Nazi Alois Brunner had the power of life and death. “This was a very cruel man,” Tomi says of war criminal Brunner: “he used to do the selection: ‘You go to the right — you go to the left.'”It was a very cruel way — separating the mother from the children, from the father. It meant this group is going to die and this group is going to live,” Tomi remembers. ” And you never knew which was which.”
After two weeks in the detention camp, they were called to the roll call. The older people were put to one side and the children and mothers to the other side. When their turn came, Tomi recalls, Brunner turned to “my brother — because he was very tall — and he asked my mother, ‘How old is he?’
“And if my mother had said he was 13, then he would have been put with the other people, working,” says Tomi, explaining that Jews celebrate bar mitzvah at 13 as the transition from child to adult; “the Germans took it that once you are 13 you are an adult. So my mother without hesitation said ’12’.
“She must have thought to herself if we are going to die we die together; if we are going to live, we live together. That’s why we were together,” Tomi says, adding that his uncles and aunt were sent variously to Auschwitz and Buchenwald for slave-labour, “where they perished.”
Tomi and his family were sent to Belsen. “They were no gas chambers in Bergen-Belsen,” says Tomi, “but unfortunately people were dying there from starvation and from disease”, especially typhoid.
“He was very cruel,” Tomi says of the Beast of Belsen (in his trial, Kramer showed no remorse when he talked about physically pushing Jews into the gas chambers at his previous camp, Auschwitz).
“He was shooting people for no reason. I saw the bodies. People who would go to the kitchen to look for potatoes skins, he would just pick them out and shoot them. And the roll call area was in front of the kitchen. And every morning, we would see seven, eight, 10 people, left there dead with blood everywhere every day.”
In January, when Auschwitz was evacuated by the Nazis because the Russian army was advancing, many of those poor souls were death- marched to Belsen. As its population swelled from about 15,000 to more than 65,000 starvation and typhoid fever became rampant. “People began to die in such quantity that the bodies were not taken away,” he says. His mother tried to help them through it. “‘She was encouraging us, ‘Don’t worry. Keep strong. We will get through it’. But it was survival from day to day.” The Reichentals never knew what would happen tomorrow. They just wanted to live through this day.
An RTE Radio interview marking Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2012 is the catalyst for a remarkable journey. Holocaust survivor Tomi discovers one of his former jailers – Hilde Lisiewicz is alive and living in Hamburg. Lisiewicz is a convicted War Criminal. She claims she is a victim of victor’s justice. Tomi embarks on a quest to investigate the SS woman’s claims of innocence. Unexpectedly Tomi’s odyssey ends where his story began, back in his native Merasice, meeting the ghosts from the past and embracing a German woman directly associated with the man who had a role in the liquidation of Tomi’s family.
4 young “neo-Nazis travel across Europe meeting historians and former concentration camp inmates. Eventually they will reach Auschwitz-Birkenau where they will question the orthodox holocaust story and meet Kitty Hart, a former prisoner.
Filmed in Poland, Germany, France, Austria and in the UK in 1993.
In 1945 Tomi Reichental was a nine-year-old boy starving to death in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. SS woman Hilde Lisiewicz was one of the Nazi guards that kept Tomi and his family in brutal captivity. Sixty-eight years later in 2013, Tomi speaks to schools all over Ireland about what he witnessed and how 35 members of his family were murdered in the Holocaust.
91 year-old Hilde (nee Lisiewicz) Michnia now lives quietly in Hamburg, a much loved mother and grandparent. After the war she became a devout Roman Catholic, where she is popular in her parish and community. She was found guilty of war crimes, but to this day insists she “did nothing wrong” and has nothing to apologise.
An RTÉ Radio interview lead Tomi to go in search of Hilde. Along the way he uncovers one of several dark secrets that Hilde has long hidden from family and friends. Tomi seeks neither to accuse nor to avenge. Will his quest end in rejection or redemption? These events are captured in Gerry Gregg’s documentary Close to Evil, which was premiered at the 2013 Galway Film Fleadh and was recently shown at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) as part of their Stranger than Fiction series.
This is a summary of I Was a Boy in Belsen. Tomi Reichental with Nicola Pierce by Tomi Reichental.
Tomi Reichental, a survivor of the horrors of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, visited St. Aidan’s to talk about his experiences at the hands of the Nazi regime during World War Two.
Seo físeán gairid de cuairt Tomi Reichental go dtí an scoil i 2014. Chaith Tomi tamall i gcampa géibhinn nuair a bhí sé an-óg. Labhair sé leis na daltaí faoin taithí a bhí aige ann agus faoin a shaol ina dhiaidh sin.
Is é seo fís faoi Tomi Reichental agus a chuntas faoi an dara cogadh domhanda agus an bhelach go cuireadh é féin agus 35 daoine eile ó a chlann i gcampa geibheann.
Tomi Reichental, who lost 35 members of his family in the Holocaust, gives his account of being imprisoned as a child at Belsen concentration camp During the Secound world War.His story is a story of the past. It is also a story for our times to learn from. The Holocaust reminds us of the dangers of racism and intolerance, providing lessons that are relevant today.
Tomi Reichental Speaks to Staff and Students at CBS Tramore
Tomi Reichental, one of only two holocaust survivors living in Ireland, has dedicated his time to speaking about his experience in schools. He is presented with the International Person of the Year.