Bergen Belsen camp was 'Hell on earth' survivor tells Mullingar audience

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 17th February, 2010 6:00pm

Bergen Belsen camp was 'Hell on earth' survivor tells Mullingar audience

Tomi Reichental

"My father was a farmer, my grandfather had a shop in the village. My uncles and aunts used to come and visit us, and the children of the village used to come around and we used to play and the family was very much liked in the village. If anybody wanted to know anything, they would ask my father or grandfather."

It could be a picture of any Irish family's history - but in this case, that is a summation of how life was for young Tomi Reichental, in Slovakia in the early 1940s.

But for the Reichentals - a Jewish family - life was about to change, and the changes started subtly, Tomi recalled for a Mullingar audience of over 200 at Columb Barracks on Tuesday night as he told of his life during World War 2, and of the time he spent incarcerated in the "death camp" that was Bergen Belsen.

The Slovak state, under the leadership of the highly anti-semitic Catholic priest Fr. Josef Tiso, had in 1939 begun colluding with the Nazi regime in Germany, and the atmosphere began changing, as anti-semitism grew within the country.

Slovakia's first anti-Jewish laws, the "Jewish Codex" were introduced in 1941, and hostility towards Jews grew: Jewish people were beaten in the street, synagogues were burned.

"These people in the village were just an ordinary farming community, straightforward people. They had no hate or anything like that. But we felt things were changing.

"We used to play football in the yard and when my brother scored a goal they would say: 'Oh, Miki scored a goal', but as time went on, it wasn't 'the Reichentals', it was 'Oh the Jew scored the goal', or 'go to the Jew, he will help'.

As a Jew Tomi was forbidden to attend his local school, so in 1941, at 6, he went to stay with an aunt in a neighbouring town. A day before he started school, she had to sew a yellow star with the word "Jude" on it, to his coat. Each day as he walked to the school - just three hundred yards away - he had to run the gauntlet of spitting children, who hurled abuse at him.

Meanwhile the collaboration between Slovakia and Germany was intensifying, and to cope with a labour shortage, in late 1941, Germany asked for volunteers from Slovakia.

"Someone had the idea to send the Jews there, to get rid of the Jews," explains Tomi.

A Slovak delegation which met Adolf Eichman reached an agreement that Slovakia would pay the German government 500 marks for every Jew deported from Slovakia.

"No other Government ever paid to take the Jews away," Mr. Reichental said.

Between March and October 1942, 58,000 of Slovakia's 90,000 Jews were deported, and only 282 of those survived. Among those who died were 35 of the Reichentals' relatives.

Tomi's family was, however, left where they were as his father was a farmer, and providing a service necessary to the Slovak economy.

In 1944, Germany occupied Slovakia, a sign, he says, "that the rest of Slovak Jewry was doomed".

His parents began to plan for the family's departure from the village.

The local priest was a good friend, and, remarkably, in a country where anti-semitism was rife among the Catholic clergy, he determined to help them by obtaining false papers, and by teaching Tomi and his brother how to appear to be Roman Catholics.

"He taught us prayers, how to pray, the Stations of the Cross, Holy Days - anything we might be asked."

In September 1944, Tomi, his brother and his mother, with their new papers, moved to Bratislava, leaving their father behind to continue running the farm. A week later, he was picked up.

"He was coming from the field, and a lorry with Slovak police was coming and this man from the village - he was a captain in the guards - said: 'That's a Jew'."

He was taken to a detention camp to be transported by cattle carriage to Auschwitz. In the same carriage there was a Hungarian man who had hidden a sawblade in his suitcase handle. That night, he used the blade to cut the chain holding the door closed.

"He shouted: 'Anyone who wants to save himself, jump after me'.

"My father jumped. I found out only a year ago only three men jumped out."

After his escape, he sent a postcard to his wife and sons in Bratislava saying: "I'm alive. Don't worry," and he joined the Resistance army.

Meanwhile, in Bratislava, someone betrayed Tomi's 76 year old shopkeeper grandmother.

That day, they managed to arrest thirteen members of Tomi's family, including himself, his mother and brother. On November 2 1944 they were put in a cattle cart for the start of what proved to be a seven night rail journey, in which conditions went from bad to worse, with no air, no light, little water.

"When the door closed behind us, our civilized life disappeared," he says.

"When we arrived it was Hell on earth. I can't describe the conditions. There was filth, starvation, disease. People were just skin and bone - emaciated. They had no strength. It was a sight you can't imagine. Some of them fell down, never to get up again. We saw people dying in front of our eyes every day."

While Tomi was there, Josef Kramer, "The Butcher of Belsen" arrived as camp commander, and immediately, conditions disimproved further.

"He would shoot people for pleasure," Tomi recalls, adding that the bodies of the murdered were deliberately left where they fell as a warning to the other prisoners.

As the war neared an end, the population of Bergen Belsen swelled from 25,000 to 60,000 inmates.

Typhoid and diphtheria spread, and people died in large numbers. The crematorium that burned 24 hours a day giving out an "unbearable" stench couldn't cope with all the deaths, "so they were just thrown in front of the block and they began to rot and disintegrate and we children would play between these corpses".

"By the time we were liberated the pile was four feet high and as far as the eye could see - ten thousand corpses."

On March 7 1945, Tomi's grandmother died - just over a month before the camp was liberated.

Another person who died that same month - and who lived in the next block from Tomi, although he didn't know her - was the Dutch girl, Anne Frank.

On April 11, the prisoners knew something was up. Suddenly, there was no guard on the watchtower, and no guards around.

For four days, the prisoners received no water and no food. Finally, on April 15, the British Army drove in to the camp, and told the prisoners they were liberated.

"It wasn't a big jubilation. It was in a quiet way. We were smiling. We simply didn't have any strength to jump and celebrate. We only knew we were free."

Of the original 98,000 Slovak Jews, only 12,000 survived the war. Fr. Tiso was put on trial in 1947, and sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.

"Kramer was also executed, but two thousand guards that were cruel and had a lot of blood on their hands all pleaded not guilty."

The prisoners had to stay on in the camp for three months after liberation to ensure they were healthy. His family was eventually reunited with Tomi's father in Bratislava, and they returned to their farm but later emigrated to Israel.

Mr. Reichental reminded the audience that the persecution of the Jews did not start with gas chambers.

"It started with whispers, then abuse, and the final stage was murder," he said, warning that Ireland must ensure that people are tolerant towards newcomers, and that people must take a stance against racism.

"Racism is a very ugly thing, and when things are not so good, there's a tendency among people to blame someone else for their trouble," he said.