‘Sometimes I say that this is worse than with the Holocaust’
Tomi Reichental, who has worked tirelessly to keep the memory of Jewish Holocaust victims alive, is saddened that lessons from history have not been learned, as the world’s treatment of Syrian refugees shows
Tomi Reichental: “What is happening in Syria is because of civil war and what happened to the Jewish people was very specific. But the end product – people trying to escape – is the same thing.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
“There are not many Holocaust survivors celebrating their birthday in a mosque,” says Tomi Reichental, proudly.
Sure enough, Condemned to Remember – the third film collaboration between Reichental and director Gerry Gregg – cuts from the cattle cars that carried the Reichental family to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944, to scenes from a Blanchardstown mosque.
There, in 2015, Reichental celebrated his 80th birthday, at the behest of Shaykh Umar al-Qadr. On camera, the Islamic scholar is disarmingly honest about the invite: “I grew up in the Netherlands, ” he says. “I was told Jews were the reason for evil in the world. Holocaust denial is very common among Muslims.”
When I spoke to them, the biggest job for me was to convince them that the Holocaust happened
Two years after this remarkable event, I’ve been warmly welcomed by Reichental and his partner Joyce into their Rathgar home.
He remains visibly thrilled by the occasion of his 80th birthday: “When I spoke to them, the biggest job for me was to convince them that the Holocaust happened. I’m trying to keep memory of the victims alive. After the speech, one of the leading members of the Muslim community from Belfast stood up and said: ‘Every day I see the Irish flag and the British flag and the Palestine flag and the Israeli flag. And every time I pass by the Israel I get annoyed. But after I have heard what Tomi said, I will think differently about it.’ To me, this was a great achievement. That I had convinced this person that Jews are just human beings too? Really lovely.”
Reichental, who moved to Ireland in 1959, did not speak about his experiences during the second World War for more than half a century. Yet for the past decade he has tirelessly campaigned, speaking to schools and clubs and conferences, so that the victims of the Holocaust will not be forgotten.
“We must never forget,” is seldom far from his lips.
In the 2009 film, Till the Tenth Generation, Reichental retraced the last steps of the 35 family members he lost during the Holocaust. A 2015 follow-up documentary, Close to Evil, chronicled an investigation into Hilde Michnia (nee Hilde Lisiewicz). Michnia is a convicted war criminal and was one of Reichental’s former jailers at Bergen-Belsen during the period when Tomi, his brother Miki and his mother Judith were incarcerated.
Condemned to Remember returns to Michnia’s participation in the death marches, just as a Hamburg prosecutor closes the case against the now 95-year-old former guard.
They should have been brought to trial years ago. It’s too late. I have no interest in punishing her
“And then, about two months ago, after we had finished the film, the prosecutor opened the file again,” notes Reichental. “Gerry says if it goes to trial, we’ll have to go back again. But all these people are in their 90s. They should have been brought to trial years ago. It’s too late. I have no interest in punishing her. As far as I’m concerned she was punished. She got a year for killing two people. If a prosecution happened, I’d be happy. Not [to see a] 95-year-old go to jail. But because she has spread a lot of lies. She’s a Holocaust denier. Her testimony exists. If, in 50 years’ time, some academic was researching the Holocaust, there’s nothing to question her account.”
Condemned to Remember is rather less interested in Michnia than it is in teasing out contemporary parallels and warnings from history. An early segment features Reichental speaking to a late-night radio show, calling for Ireland to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees. He suggests that Ireland should not repeat its historical treatment of the Jews as they attempted to flee from the Nazis and their collaborators. He is saddened when 73 per cent of listeners disagree.
“I have just come back from Israel,” he says now. “Many people there don’t like it when I compare the two things.That what is happening in Syria is because of civil war and what happened to the Jewish people was very specific. But the end product – people trying to escape – is the same thing. This is happening on the borders of Europe. We can’t say it’s none of our business or let the Arabs look after them. These are women and children and innocent people.
“Sometimes I say that this is worse than with the Holocaust. Because many people did not know about the Holocaust. We all know what is going on now. There are more than 500 million people in Europe. If you take in one or two million refugees, a family to every village or town, they would be integrated. The impact wouldn’t be felt. If we don’t do this, there will be trouble in years to come.”
Trouble, as Condemned to Remember points out, is already looming on the political horizon. Having returned to Slovakia, the country of his birth, Reichental visits Banská Bystrica, once the centre of anti-Nazi opposition in Slovakia. His father was among those who took part in the Slovak National Uprising, one of the largest anti-Nazi resistance actions of the 1940s, which was launched from the city on August 29th, 1944.
The current governor of the region is Marian Kotleba, the leader of the far-right Kotleba (People’s Party Our Slovakia political party) and an open admirer of Jozef Tiso and his Nazi puppet state, the First Slovak Republic.
Kotleba refuses to correspond with or meet Reichental throughout the new film
“He dresses like the fascists,” says Reichental. “To me, it’s such a paradox. It’s like history has turned itself upside down. There was an uprising against the Nazis in this town. Not just Jews, but Slovakian men and women. About 1,500 died fighting to get rid of the fascists. It’s only 70 years ago. Not such a long time in history. Now Kotleba is mayor of the town. His party has 10 or 11 percent in parliament. The ideology is the same as the fascists. I met a Jewish doctor there who has spoken to him and she said she was afraid for her children. And he said: ‘We have nothing against the Jews. It’s all because of the gypsies.’ ”
Footage from a People’s Party rally, in which one local is rounded on as a “dirty Jew”, suggests otherwise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kotleba refuses to correspond with or meet Reichental throughout the new film.
“People there are very nice people,” says Reichental . “They say that Kotleba will not last, that his party knows how to take advantage of this and that. But I have heard ‘this will not last’ before.”
Kotleba’s views on the Holocaust are unknown, an uncertainty that is sadly spreading through the political classes. In January, the White House issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to reference Jews at all. In April, US president Donald Trump corrected the oversight by denouncing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony. Still, there are troubling and murky associations between the current US administration and such figures as the late Joe Sobran and Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“Trump is getting support from these people,” says Reichental. “He’s a disaster. I expected him to win. But I thought before he was elected that his statements were just to appease certain types of Republicans. I thought he would change. But nobody can take his word on anything.”
Tomi Reichental’s 2011 memoir of his disrupted childhood, I Was A Boy In Belsen, is not short on horrors. There are sadistic guards, “latrine dolls” (the bodies of dead babies that had been discarded into the communal lavatory hole), and corpses everywhere. He recalls seeing the body of his grandmother Rosalia Scheimowitz, being thrown onto a rotting pile. She had starved on Hilde Lisiewicz’s watch.
Polish collaborators rounded up and killed at least 340 of their Jewish neighbours
Despite these traumas, Reichental shows no signs of desensitisation. During one memorable sequence in Condemned to Remember, he weeps at the site of the Jedwabne pogrom, where, in 1941, local Polish collaborators rounded up and killed at least 340 of their Jewish neighbours.
“Normally I can talk about the Holocaust, no problem,” he says.”When you are talking to boys and girls at schools you want to hide your emotions. But sometimes, suddenly, when I am speaking, the whole thing becomes very real. Memories come back. And when I go to Jedwabne, it doesn’t matter that it was Jews or any other people. To think what these people did to their neighbours. They were their neighbours from the 1600s. Their burial places indicate that they lived there from that time. It was not enough that they killed them. They slaughtered them. They cut them to pieces.”
He is similarly moved by a visit to Srebrenica: “Nearly 8,000 graves,” he says. “The sight of it! They are still discovering more and more bones. And the executioners are still living among them.”
Against this, there are always good neighbours. In Merašice, the small Slovakian village where he was born, where he can still recall eating ice cream with his extended pre-war family, the community came together to protect one of the three Jewish families who lived there.
“They had converted to evangelical Christianity,” recalls Reichental. “But that didn’t make any difference under the law. We left the village thinking we would go to some other place and pretend to be Roman Catholic. We didn’t look Jewish. They could have got money for us. But they told us the fascists were coming. And this other family stayed in the village until the end of the war. Everybody knew. Even the two German families in the village. When we come back there was a big party. They had put a man in charge of five farms that belonged to Jews.The pictures of the family were still on the wall.”
- Condemned to Remember is on general release