An Irishman's Diary
The course of Zoltan Zinn-Collis’s extraordinary life – a life that ended last week in Co Kildare – was largely dictated by two twists of fate: one catastrophic, the other fortuitous.
The first predated his birth in 1940, in the Tatra mountains of what is now Slovakia. It occurred when his mother, a Protestant of genteel stock, married Adolf Zinn, a Jewish labourer. Her family didn’t approve the match, which was indeed to have dire consequences for the young woman, although worse than anything they could have imagined.
When the Germans came for her husband, she still had a chance to save herself. All she had to do was disown him and sign an annulment. Instead, she looked the Nazi commander in the eye and said “No. I love him.” And with that both she and her half-Jewish children were condemned.
Zoltan was four years old when he last saw his father, at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Zinn Snr had been badly beaten upon capture. Now he was marched away with other men, presumably to the gas chambers.
It was not the first death in the family. In the course of a grim journey to the camps, deprived of water or proper food, Zoltan’s youngest sibling, a baby girl, had also died. In a 2006 memoir, Final Witness, Zinn-Collis recalled the train stopping somewhere and his mother clinging to the body: “Mother was holding on to this tiny bundle and a guard was trying to tear it from her hands. The guard gave a sudden jerk, and took the bundle in one hand, gave it a cursory inspection, and threw it swiftly over the wall at the back of the station. My mother gazed at him, shocked and powerless, and this bundle with no name, my baby sister, was gone.”
The remaining Zinns were headed for Belsen, where Zoltan and his sister Edit would grow used to playing among malodorous piles of dead bodies, so numerous the prison guards couldn’t dispose of them.
The camp had 13,000 unburied corpses at war’s end. By then, another Zinn sibling, brother Aladar, had died from TB. Their mother almost survived. But on the very day the camp was freed, April 15th, 1945, emaciated from malnutrition, she too succumbed.
That was when fate, having done its worst to the family, finally and belatedly turned kind. Among the Red Cross volunteers who arrived in Belsen were an Irish doctor called Bob Collis and a Dutch nurse Han Hogerzeil, whose future marriage had its origins in this hell-hole.
Collis was a remarkable man, who had played rugby for Ireland and would later mentor Christy Brown, editing the manuscript that became My Left Foot. But his defining work was as a paedaetrician: in this capacity he brought several Belsen orphans back to Ireland where, with Han, he adopted Zoltan and Edit as his own.
For all his talents, or maybe because of them, Collis was not a hands-on father. His energies were expended elsewhere. As his adopted son put it: “He was like Francis Drake or Walter Raleigh – an adventurer. Great on an open sea with the wind in his hair; less great in the small pond of family life.”
Yet it was through one of those metaphorical voyages, on a very dark sea, that five-year-old Zoltan Zinn-Collis, as he now became, had been picked up by the lifeboats and given a second chance.
He made the most of it. Growing up in Ireland, he would become a successful hotel manager. He would marry and have four daughters. And he would be enjoying a well-deserved retirement when he died, at home in Athy, on December 10th. He was 72.
Not that he could have done, anyway, but he had never forgotten the horrors of his childhood. Lest others forget, he spoke over the years in many Irish schools, and at a seminar in the University of Limerick in 1997, which is when the human rights campaigner Edward Horgan first met him.
At the end of his memoir – co-written with Alicia McAuley – Zinn-Collis remarked “I hope I have not made myself out to be anything special”. There was no need for modesty. “He was a very special person,” says Horgan. But he was also troubled in later years that pledges to prevent repeats of the Nazi genocide had been forgotten in places like Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda.
Zoltan Zinn-Collis is survived by his wife Joan, his sister Edit, a brother Robbie, and by his daughters. Importantly, he is also survived by the memoir. Which, as Edward Horgan says, deserves to be very widely read, “and should be on the curriculum of all Irish secondary schools.”