Interview with Tomi Reichental – Holocaust Survivor
Briefly describe your life before the Holocaust/Growing up in Slovakia (at that time Czechoslovakia)?
I was born in central Slovokia, we lived in a little village named Merašice. It was an agricultural village, most of the people were farmers, my father was a farmer as well, my grandfather had a village shop. My memories of living there are very fond. I had a lovely childhood. I don’t remember feeling any different to anybody else. I had a very normal childhood, just like any child in the little villages of Ireland.
How were you and your family taken to Bergen-Belsen camp?
The deportation from Slovakia started in 1942, at the time Jewish people were being taken who were not considered useful to the Slovakian ecomony. As my father was a farmer he was considered useful and so we were given documentation which meant we would not be taken. In October the deportations stopped but by this time seventy-five per cent of the Jewish population had been taken away. This included most of my relatives and my grandparents. We never saw them again. In fact Slovaks were among the first Jewish people to be gassed in Auschwitz. I lost about thirty members of my family at that time. Then the news started to filter out, about what was happening in the detention camps. People didn’t trust the government anymore. People were trying to hide to avoid being caught and taken away. I remember we would be notified when the police were in the neighbouring village. We would go to our cornfield and stay there for the whole day.
At the time, Slovakia was not occupied by Germany. When an uprising started, Germany wanted to save the Slovok government and occupied Slovakia. After this they became very efficient. My father was taken separately from us. We didn’t know where he went to. We were taken to a detention camp in Slovakia, and from there we were transported to Bergen-Belsen.
My Mother, brother, grandmother, my aunt, my cousin and myself were taken together. In the detention camp, we went through a selection, where families were split. The six of us went to the right hand side and the other seven went to the left. Mothers, their children and old people were destined for Lublin, Auschwitz and the others would be to go to work slave labour camps. In fact they were sent to Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, these were slave labour camps. Out of the seven, six died in Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, only one cousin survived. We were sent to Bergen-Belsen.
How would you describe the conditions that you experienced in Bergen-Belsen camp?
Bergen-Belsen was a detention camp. People were dying there from starvation, cold and disease. In total 70,000 people died in Bergen-Belsen. Thankfully five of us survived Bergen-Belsen. Unfortunately my grandmother died of starvation. We had a very hard time in Bergen-Belsen. The food we were given was innefficient to sustain you. It was always only a matter of time. Thankfully we were liberated on 15 of April 1945.
What was the most difficult thing about being in a camp?
Well the starvation was one of the most difficult things. Just to give you an example in scientific terms. Today we eat about 2,500 calories a day, in a normal diet. In the camp we ate about 600/700 calories a day. Which is the equivalent to about six water crackers. People used to starve all the time. Their bodies were eating themselves from the inside. I was very skinny when we were liberated, they had to put me into hospital right away.
Did you lose hope during the Holocaust?
Well we had very strong characters in other mother and our aunt. They were always encouraging us, ‘you must eat’, ‘you must exercise’ and ‘you have to keep strong’ because ‘otherwise you will not survive’. You never thought what will happen in a week or a month’s time, you only wanted to survive each day. If you survived a day, that was a big achievement. You couldn’t plan any further than one day at a time.
How did the Holocaust influence your faith?
I am not a very religious person. I am a traditionalist. We keep to our holy days and keep to tradition but I am not a religious person. There is an influence of course from the concentration camp, there were religious people there, these people would pray every day for God to show himself, to help us. It never happened, so we lost some of our faith. I am supportive of my synagogue, I pay my due as if the synagogue and community cannot support themselves, then people wouldn’t have anywhere to pray
How did you end up coming to live and work in Ireland?
It was the late 50s when I came to Ireland. One of my cousins working in England. Her boss was an industrialist, manufacturing zips. He was looking for a manager to set up a factory in Ireland. She told him that she knew an engineer in Germany, her cousin, who could do it. This gentleman invited me to London and when I went there he told me that I would have a contract for three years where I would be sent to Italy to learn how to make zips, and then I would go to Ireland and set up a factory. That’s what I did. I came to Ireland and I met a Jewish girl here, fell in love, we got married and I am still in Ireland today.
Did you experience anti-semitism when you arrived in Ireland?
I had one incident. I had my own company, a jewellery manufacturer, and we had a dispute in the workplace. One of the representatives came to negotiate and made a derogitory remark about Jewish people. I got up and I said to him, ‘this is not 1945, you cannot speak to me like this, I want you to leave and to never come back and if you are not satisfied with this then you can go on strike, you are welcome to do so but I will not sit with you again at the same table.’ After he went out we settled the dispute and I never saw him again. That is the only incident I ever experienced of anti-semitism in Ireland and I stood my ground.
What do you think that the Holocaust can teach us today?
The last film that I made Condemned to Remembercame about because I was in Europe, filming scenes when the refugee crisis arose. I said to my producer, this is the documentary that we should be making, to show people what is happening in Europe. I remembered in the late 1930s, when Jewish people were trying to escape Europe and nobody wanted to take them in. These people are running from persecution and nobody wants to take them. It is history repeating itself. That is what I wanted to show. Something like the Holocaust could happen again.
This is an edited version of an interview with Tomi conducted by Faith Quille, the full interview can be found online at _____