RITE & REASON:For 60 years Tomi Reichental could not speak of the horrors he lived through
Just before Christmas the German ambassador to Ireland, Eckhard Lubkemeier, took his courage in his hands and made a phone call. The person he wanted to speak to is an Irish citizen.
The president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck, had just granted the diplomat’s request to award this Irish man the Order of Merit. But would he agree to accept Germany’s highest civilian honour?
Dr Lubkemeier was feeling anxious when he picked up the phone to talk to Tomi Reichental.
Reichental is 77 and rarely rests. After he settled in Dublin in the 1960s he raised a family, ran a business and, until his wife Evanne died, lived an industrious life in Rathgar.
A citizen of this Republic since 1977, Reichental is a Jew. His place of birth in 1935 was a small town in Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s Germany was next door and the Third Reich had plans for his country and his people.
Czechoslovakia was the “faraway place” British prime minister Neville Chamberlain felt was not worth fighting for. His policy of appeasement allowed the Nazis to dismember Czechoslovakia and install Msgr Jozef Tiso as their puppet in Bratislava in 1939.
Almost overnight, Slovakia’s 90,000 Jews were delivered into the hands of a pro-Nazi fascist regime that boasted its anti-Semitic laws were harsher than Germany’s. Slovak Jews were excluded, then expelled and finally exterminated. Only 12,000 survived the war. Reichental lost 35 relatives in the Holocaust. As a boy he was profoundly traumatised by his experiences after being uprooted from the family farm and forced to go on the run.
In late 1944, the Gestapo cornered Reichental and his brother Miki in a shop in Bratislava. They beat the boys and captured the rest of the family. Their next ordeal was Bergen Belsen. Reichental describes it as “hell on Earth”. Here he saw his grandmother Rosalie die of starvation and her body dumped on the piles of rotting corpses that ringed Belsen in the spring of 1945. For 60 years Reichental couldn’t speak about the horrors he lived through.
Some years ago he broke his silence. He now gives students in schools all over Ireland an account of what he witnessed and how he survived. His talks are unforgettable and prompted me to make a documentary on Reichental. I Was a Boy in Belsen was broadcast on RTÉ One television in 2009.
When Lubkemeier made that call in November, he was unaware that Reichental had just returned from a remarkable journey. A year ago he appeared on RTÉ Radio One’s God Slot. A listener in Galway heard his interview and contacted RTÉ.
The listener had worked in Germany and got close to an elderly woman who was active in her Hamburg parish. The German woman had confided in her about her past and her nightmares. She was once an SS guard in Belsen. The listener wondered would Reichental like to meet her?
Hesitantly, he agreed.
That invitation prompted us to make a second film. Close to Evil will tell the story of what Reichental discovered about his former jailer, Hilde Michnia. Michnia, now 91, is a convicted murderer. She was found guilty of beating two prisoners to death in Belsen for stealing turnips at the Luneburg War Crimes trial in 1945.
Reichental travelled to Hamburg to meet Michnia and offer her a chance to repudiate her past. She declined.
Then he received the ambassador’s call and was moved by the German president’s symbolic gesture of reconciliation.
Last week, Reichental received his award for his commitment to tolerance and his efforts to combat racism. It was an occasion charged with emotion and meaning. It will make a fitting end to our film.
* Gerry Gregg is an Emmy award-winning producer and director