Guests of the nation
An Irishman’s Diary about the Jewish diaspora in Ireland
At Ludwig Hopf’s grave in Mount Jerome (from left): Kay McNamara (sister of Fr Walshe), Fr Willie Walshe, Tomi Reichental and Joyce Weinrib, Tomi’s partner
I don’t know whether Ludwig Hopf was a religious man, in the usual sense of the term. He would certainly have belonged to the congregation of what his friend and collaborator Albert Einstein, consoling a colleague’s widow once, called “believing physicists”. But just to be on the safe side, 75 years after Hopf’s physical manifestation departed this world, his immortal soul is still being well looked after.
At his grave in Dublin over Christmas, it was prayed for by two religions, and in both Hebrew and English. The Hebrew was by Tomi Reichental, one of less than a handful of Jewish people left in Ireland who survived the Nazi concentration camps. The English prayer was by Willie Walshe, a Wicklow-born Catholic priest now mainly resident in Kenya.
As regular readers of this column may recall, Fr Walshe first became interested in Hopf’s story when, some years ago, he conducted the burial service for the German scientist’s son, Arnold.
The family had been scattered across the globe by the Nazi terror. And while Arnold fled to Kenya, where he eventually married a local woman and settled down, Ludwig ended up in Dublin and a job at Trinity College, before death claimed him prematurely, just after the start of the war.
The grave at Mount Jerome, which also contains the remains of Ludwig’s daughter Liselore, was later forgotten, and neglected for decades, until the Walsh family found it again and, with the help of friends, cleaned it up.
Now, apart from the depredations of birds, the grave looks as pristine as it has done at any time since December 1939 when, in a funeral oration delivered in German, Prof Hans Sachs, another Jewish exile in Dublin, invited the mourners to “bow with reverence before the inscrutable power of destiny”.
Prof Sachs also spoke on that occasion of the shared fate that had brought him and Hopf to “this beautiful and hospitable country”. Maybe that was a more charitable verdict than Ireland deserved for its record towards Jews in general. In any case, the same country would in time welcome Tomi Reichental, who had lived in Israel and later Germany after the war, before settling here in the early 1960s.
Reichental’s extraordinary story has been well told in his memoir, I Was a Boy in Belsen, and the resultant documentary. To recap briefly, he was born in Slovakia in the fateful year of 1935, just as the Nuremberg laws were being passed, ensuring his normal childhood would not last long.
As the Nazi-friendly Slovakian government rounded on the country’s Jews, his family’s life became increasingly precarious. But they were finally arrested in 1944, and from there began the descent into the hell that was Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died, and where children like Tomi somehow survived amid the thousands of unburied bodies, many of them victims of typhus, that greeted the camp’s liberators.
Reichental is unusual among Holocaust survivors in that several of his immediate family members also survived, including his father, who jumped from a train bound for Auschwitz. Nevertheless, no fewer than 35 of his relatives perished.
I had never met him until that day in Mount Jerome. And I was struck first by how much younger than his years he seems, physically and mentally. Then, invited back for tea to his Rathgar home, I was astonished that someone could live through the terrible things he had and retain such a sunny and generous disposition.
He has retained his middle-European accent too, seemingly untouched by half a century in Dublin. And as a physical memento of his lost childhood, the Rathgar hallway also includes a little piece of Slovakia – a colourful sideboard rescued from the family home. Somehow, this mute witness to history helps underline just how short a time ago it is since that horror engulfed Europe
Tomi’s main work these days, in retirement, is to ensure people don’t forget. He has recently been the subject of another documentary from film-maker Gerry Gregg. This one focuses on an attempt to arrange a face-to-face meeting with a surviving prison guard from Belsen, Hilde Lisiewicz, now in her 90s. It will be screened on RTÉ later this year.
Reichental is also a regular participant in school visits organised by the Holocaust Education Trust, a role that grows ever more important as the numbers who can speak from experience dwindle. As one of only four such Irish residents left, he will of course also be among the contributors at Dublin’s Mansion House this coming Sunday, when Ireland marks Holocaust Memorial Day. More details are at hetireland.org