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We can never forget.Holocaust still holds lessons for all of us

TOMI Reichental is one of only two Holocaust survivors still alive in Ireland, but he still fears the worst imaginable could happen again.

It is now 68 years since the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps were first unveiled to the world.

Emaciated survivors clung to the barbed wire fences as Allied troops rolled into a living hell in January 1945.

The deep-seeded anti-semitism that bubbled beneath the surface in Germany and eastern Europe erupted, resulting in some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen.

Today Tomi says that racism in Ireland is a reality and that a recession is the perfect breeding ground for history to repeat itself.

Born in Slovakia, Tomi was just a nine-year-old boy when his family were marched off to Bergen Belsen concentration camp by the Nazis in 1944.


He and other children played hide-and-seek among the piles of dead bodies and became immune to the stench. Tomi (77) said he compart-mentalised this portion of his life and the torturous memories that went with it for many years -- he couldn't bear to think about the death camps.

However, since he opened up about his experiences as a boy in Belsen to schoolchildren in Ireland several years ago, he says that he now feels it is his "life mission" to talk about the Holocaust, so that it may never happen again.

"I'm retired now and for me this is a life mission," he said. "I started out not thinking about it, it was very difficult to start. It has taken my life over now -- it is very important that young people hear these stories, especially in Ireland.

"Ireland is now a multi-national country. When I came here there wasn't a foreigner. There were no blacks here whatsoever. Today the blacks are the new Jews. There is racism here."

Dublin-based Tomi tells students in lectures up and down the country that they must be aware of incidents of racism, particularly in a faltering economy.

"In a recession people are trying to blame somebody else," he said. "If your father is out work and you go on the Luas and you see the black fellow and you say 'he is taking the job of an Irish person, what are you doing, you should be in Africa'.

"That is what is happening. Racism exists. That's what I tell the children. If you see somebody abusing somebody else, whether he is a foreigner, a Pole, a different religion, a different skin -- don't be a bystander, tell them it's wrong," he added. "Because in our time, unfortunately, nobody said it was wrong and look what happened there."

The Reichentals left their hometown of Merasice in Slovakia soon after the Nazis arrived in 1944.

Arnold, Tomi's father, stayed behind the rest of the family to look after the farm but was soon arrested because he was a Jew.

He was put on a train headed for Auschwitz but, incredibly, managed to jump from the train and escape.

Meanwhile Tomi, his brother, his mother, aunts, uncles and cousins were dispatched to Bergen Belsen concentration camp in north-west Germany after they were betrayed to the Gestapo from their hideout in a shop in Bratislava. But Tomi says the family's story of survival is one of luck and chance and has little to do with fate or religion.


"I'm not religious. I follow the Jewish faith as a tradition, I keep the various holy days and Friday evening the family always have dinner in our house with our friends," he explained.

"But I went through such trauma; thousands of people starving and dying, tens of thousands of corpses lying around where we were. How can I believe in God? Where was He when this was happening?"

The family had their first near-miss when they were stopped by soldiers as they attempted to cross over a railway line. "We were escaping from the village on cart and were stopped by these two soldiers," he said. "We had false papers and everything. Suddenly one of the soldiers said 'These are Jews, stop'."

The driver of the cart, a man who was working on his father's farm, suddenly cracked the whip and the horse and cart took off at high speed.

"They didn't even shoot after us and we were saved," he said.

"It is just incredible -- each time we came out on top and we survived."

Tomi said that the time after they left the camps was the most difficult.

"When we were liberated I was like a skeleton," he said.

"It was April 15, 1945. If it had happened a week, two weeks, three weeks later, I might have died. I was sent to hospital straight after the liberation because they thought that I had some disease.

"As it happened, there was nothing wrong with me -- I was just starving."

The family was later reunited and Tomi went on to build a career as an engineer and settled in Rathgar in Dublin in the Sixties. He married and had three boys, who are all extremely successful in their own right. When his wife died 10 years ago, he thought he would have a lonely existence until he met Joyce Weinrib, who became his partner.

This week, the Holocaust survivor has been honoured with the Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, selected by the president of Germany, Joachim Gauck for the award. He was presented by the German ambassador, Dr Eckard Lubkemeier, at a ceremony in Dublin.

Tomi says that he holds no hatred for the German people.

"My attitude towards the German people is very positive," he said. "There are Jews today still who wouldn't even go to Germany, they wouldn't buy anything from the Germans. They still consider the Germans awful people.

"I think it is an insult to the youth of Germany because these people built a democracy that today is an example to the world. How can I blame or reject these people?"


Tomi has been planning to meet a former SS guard who was stationed at Belsen camp. He wants to give the woman, now known as Mathilde Michnia, the chance to say sorry.

"She denies everything. She never saw, she never did. She never said 'I regret or I am sorry'. Never," he said. "I want to meet her and perhaps for the first time -- she is now 90 -- she will have the opportunity.

"She must have been a real piece of work, a really cruel woman. But there she is in her last years. She is going to pass away and it would have been some little closure for her.

"It would have also been closure for me to shake her hand. But it didn't happen. She grew up in a system that the propaganda and the influence in her life told her to be a monster," he added. "Ask yourself -- if I grew up in that system, would I do the same?"

Tomi's second journey to meet the SS guard is being made into a documentary by Emmy Award-winning producer Gerry Gregg with the working title Close To Evil