Most likely, you have never heard of Tomi Reichental. Who is he? Why is he important in the context of history, and, more precisely, Jewish history? Well, I’m glad you asked. Read on.
Tomi Reichental is a Holocaust survivor, one of only two currently living in Ireland, but he is not your “run of the mill” Holocaust survivor, if there is such a thing. Most Holocaust survivors, understandably, have sought to try to forget the horrors they experienced and just live their lives quietly. They try to avoid talking about them, even to close family members. To do so is to relive the horrors. Sometimes, these family members only discover them when they go through the person’s effects after his or her death. (This is not unlike military veterans who try to avoid discussing their combat experiences. I am not saying the two are equivalent. I don’t believe they are even remotely comparable, but many of us know combat veterans and can relate to that situation better.)
The significance of Tomi Reichental is that he has elected to talk about his experiences, often to children. To add authenticity, he often appears wearing a sweater with a yellow Jewish star affixed. To most of these children the Holocaust was just something they learned about from a history book or, perhaps, a movie. Books and movies, regardless of how authentic and descriptive they may be, do not begin to convey the extent of the horrors and degradations suffered by the victims, even those who survived. On the other hand, a personal account, which Tomi can provide,… now, that is something else again.
Furthermore, as time passes and the few survivors pass away, it becomes increasingly imperative to keep the memories alive, to make sure succeeding generations are aware, especially with all the “Holocaust deniers” out there). Tomi has said that the children are so overwhelmed by his story that they (and he) are often left in tears.
Tomi relates his story to the children, in detail, so vividly that they must see it as he did as a frightened nine-year old. He was born in 1935 in Slovakia, now Czechoslovakia. His earliest memories were of an idyllic childhood. Then, Germany annexed Slovakia. The maltreatment of Jews began soon after. First, he was just subjected to harassment and bullying by the other children in school. That was just a warm-up for what was to follow. Next, the Nazis began transporting the Jews to the death camps. For a while he and his family were able to evade capture, but one day, when he was nine, the Nazis arrested him along with 30 or so members of his extended family. He describes a freezing day in November, the unheated cattle cars with cracks that let in the frigid air, the vicious dogs, scavenging for scraps of food, the sight and smell of the decaying dead, and, last but not least, the sight of his grandmother’s corpse being tossed into a cart filled with other corpses like so much trash. No wonder, he leaves his audiences in tears.
After the War, Tomi was reunited with the few members of his family that had also survived. He was no longer welcome in his home country, so in 1949 he emigrated to Israel. In 1959 he emigrated to Ireland. He started a small zipper factory, raised a family and lived his life for 60 years. Then, one day his whole life changed. His 12 year-old grandson mentioned in school that his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. His teacher invited him to relate his experiences to the class, and, as they say, the rest is history. To date, he has spoken at nearly 600 schools before over 70,000 children.
He is fully booked into the forseeable future; his experiences have been made into a memoir – “I Was a Boy in Belsen,” a movie – “Close to Evil,” and he has been honored as “International Person of the Year.” Furthermore, he has met the granddaughter of one of the Nazis who arrested and transported his family back in 1944. Tomi holds no ill will toward her, and she, in turn, is very supportive of Tomi and his activities. For example, she was present at his award ceremony, which, if you’re interested, can be found on the internet.
This is not the case with respect to a former Bergen-Belsen prison guard, 93 year-old Hilde Michnia, who now lives in Hamburg. When contacted by the producer of “Close to Evil” to be interviewed for the film Ms. Michnia declined, citing illness. Fair enough, however, it should be denoted that in a 2004 interview she had expressed no remorse for her actions as a prison guard. Furthermore, she denied that prisoners had been maltreated and could “not recall” any smells from rotting corpses.
I can personally vouch for how powerful a first-person account can be. Years ago while my wife and I were in Denmark on vacation we heard a powerful and dramatic first-person account from a man in which he described how, during WWII, he witnessed people from his village, including his father, hide Jews from the Nazis and ferry them at night to safety in Sweden. He was describing this through the frightened eyes of a nine-year old boy who, night after night, never knew if his father would return alive. According to this man, the people knew it was extremely dangerous, but they did it anyway because it was the “right thing.” That story moved us in ways that books and movies never have.
At the age of 80 when most people are content to live quietly with their spouses, children and grandchildren, Tomi spends his days travelling extensively around Ireland spreading the word to the young generation. Why? He has a story to tell, and he feels it is imperative that as many people as possible hear it, first-hand.
I heartily applaud his actions. As we know, those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it.