Holocaust survivor: 'There was fear, not jubilation, the day we were freed from the concentration camp'
Tomi Reichental talks about the horrors of his childhood during the Holocaust and life after liberation
It is difficult to imagine the horrors that Tomi Reichental witnessed as a child in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The 80-year-old Holocaust survivor has dedicated much of the last decade to giving lectures in schools and universities, both here in his adopted home of Ireland and around the world, to educate people about the time.
It is, Tomi tells me, his way of honouring those lost during this horrific moment in modern history and making sure that such atrocities never happen again.
There is a poignant contrast as we sit in his beautiful south Dublin home, surrounded by the scent of freshly baked scones and carrot cake to talk about Tomi's traumatic childhood memories - the fear, the starvation, the overcrowding, how he, his brother and his cousin would play innocently amongst the thousands of rotting corpses outside.
Tomi was just nine years old when he was deported alongside five of his family members from his native Slovakia to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944.
"I think I owe it to the victims that their memory is not forgotten," Tomi explains. "Sometimes when the young people hear it from teachers, it might go in one ear and out the other, but when they hear me, they never forget about it because they are seeing somebody who has been a part of that history," he smiles gently.
"I lost 35 members of my family, people that I knew," Tomi pauses. "One day they disappeared and I never saw them again, so for me, it is very important that I speak about it."
However, it took many decades before Tomi could open up and speak about his ordeal. "It took over 55 years until I actually started to speak about it and now they cannot stop me," he jokes. "It is not that I didn't want to before, I just could not do it."
Tomi's family were arrested late in the Nazi campaign - at first Slovakia was simply a friendly nation to Hitler's regime and, as a farmer, Tomi's father was deemed too valuable to the Slovakian economy to be sent, like many other Slovak Jews, to the Nazi work and extermination camps.
This changed, however, once German troops began to occupy Slovakia.
"In 1942, because my father was a farmer and was useful to the economy, we got a special document so that, for the time being, we shouldn't be taken away," Tomi tells me. "When Slovakia was occupied by Germany, of course, then no paper was useful. We tried to escape and we tried to hide, but we were betrayed."
"They used to do a selection process where the young men and women went to the right and the children, mothers and old people to the left," Tomi explains. "In seconds, families were split, the young men and women who were able to work were sent to slave labour and the others they were sent to the extermination camps."
Tomi was transported alongside his mother, brother, grandmother, aunt and cousin in a cattle-cart, which was originally bound for Auschwitz, but was rerouted to Bergen-Belsen.
"The German soldiers got word that they were to retreat from the west to the east because the Russians were advancing. We were on the train at this time; so we were the first transport that didn't go to Auschwitz. If we had been arrested at the beginning of October, I wouldn't be here," Tomi trails off.
He remembers being shielded from much of what was happening during those years by his family, but once he reached Bergen-Belsen, - despite the efforts of his mother, aunt and grandmother - the desperation of their situation became apparent to him, even as a child of nine.
"When it all started in 1942, I had just really started school. The first time I knew that I was different was when I had to wear the yellow star. I was going to school and kids started to shout at me 'dirty Jew, smelly Jew' and all of this," Tomi says.
"My mother was really an extraordinary person. In the worst times, she always smiled and she was the power behind us.
"My mother also survived and she had a good life. She died only 12 years ago; she was 96 years old, she was really the pillar of strength in our hour of despair.
In his younger days with his mum and older brother
"She would never show that we were in trouble. She tried to keep it away from me, but, of course, I was there and saw it."
A couple of months before the Allied Forces liberated the Bergen-Belsen camp, thousands of inmates were moved there from Auschwitz. As a result, the numbers in the already overcrowded camp swelled and disease was rampant. Death and dying was a part of everyday life.
Tomi's grandmother Rosalia passed away just weeks before they were liberated.
"They just came into the room and they picked her up, one by the arms and one by the legs, threw her onto a cart, then she was wheeled out and thrown onto the pile of corpses outside," Tomi remembers.
"We were liberated on April 15. I remember that day very well. It was just an ordinary day, sunny outside. On April 11, we didn't see any guards in the watchtower, they escaped, but still nobody dared to go out, even though the gate was open. We didn't know what was happening, we were afraid."
"There was no food or water for four days," Tomi adds. "Then on the afternoon of the 15th, we heard this rumbling through the camp and we all ran to the barbed wire to see what was happening and we saw jeeps were coming in.
"There was no jubilation. We had smiles on our faces, but 90pc of the people in Bergen-Belsen were sick. People just stood, they were scared, they had no strength, they were dying most of them."
Following a number of months in quarantine, Tomi and his family returned to Slovakia where they were reunited with his father. Tomi's father had been arrested separately and escaped by jumping from a train bound for Auchswitz with a number of others.
According to Tomi, however, the welcome for Jewish people in Slovakia after the war was not a warm one.
"The atmosphere for Jewish people in Slovakia was not very good," Tomi says. "Because of the propaganda the Slovak people had experienced, they still hated the Jews. They used to whisper around that more Jews were coming back than were taken away. It wasn't our home anymore."
After school, Tomi travelled to the newly formed state of Israel, where he joined the Israeli Army. His parents and brother Miki, who was finishing his university studies in engineering, followed a short time later. Tomi was discharged from the army after his two years of service, but was called as a member of the reserve forces in 1956 during Israel's Suez campaign.
"It was tough. I saw a lot of terrible things during that time," Tomi says. "After that, I wanted to study engineering so I decided to go to university in Germany."
While in Germany, a cousin of Tomi's, who was working in London as an au pair, recommended Tomi to her boss, a major industrialist, who was looking for someone to set up a zip manufacturing company in Ireland. Tomi was flown to London and subsequently offered the job.
"That's how I came to Ireland. In 1960, I met a girl and in June, 1961, we married," he smiles.
Tomi and his wife Evanne Blackman left Ireland for Israel a short time later, where his eldest son was born. However, after a number of pleading letters from Evanne's father, the couple returned to Dublin where Tomi took over his father-in-law's jewellery manufacturing business.
"I had started a factory in Israel with my brother, which developed into a huge manufacturing company for tools for the woodworking industry, but eventually I relented and we came back," he smiles. "We were very happy. Unfortunately, my wife got cancer in 2003 and within 14 months, she died," Tomi adds. "I have three sons and six grandchildren."
Tomi has found happiness once again with his partner of nine years, Joyce Weinrib. Last year, he received the International Person of the Year Award and later this month, he will accept an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. In fact, Tomi's home is adorned with many honours and awards, some more modest than others, but all appreciated most sincerely by their recipient.
In January 2008, RTE broadcast a one-hour documentary on Tomi's life entitled I was a boy in Belsen, produced by Gerry Gregg. In 2011, Gregg produced a second film, Close to Evil, which followed Tomi's quest to meet one of his alleged former jailers - Hilde Lisiewicz, who it transpired was alive and living in Hamburg.
After the film was broadcast, a German man named Hans-Jürgen Brennecke filed charges against the 93-year-old woman, which caused prosecutors there to open an investigation into allegations that Hilde served as a Nazi SS guard. Tomi had hoped that the documentary could be "an opportunity for reconciliation", but Hilde refused to meet with him.
"I don't want to see her going to prison," he tells me. "It's too late; she is 93 years old, but for me, it is very important that a conviction comes out of it if she is sent to trial and found guilty, from a moral point of view."
Nominations are being accepted for the 2015 People of the Year until September 14. For more information, see www.peopleoftheyear.com