I Was a Boy in Belsen

IWasABoyInBelsenBOn the eve of the publication of the new edition of Tomi Reichantal’s powerful memoir, I Was a Boy in Belsen, Gerry Gregg, producer/director of the feature documentaries Till the Tenth Generation and Close to Evil, talks about his work with Tomi and all that has occurred since the initial publication of his incredible story.

For the past twelve years, Tomi Reichental has been on a very public voyage of personal recovery from the searing embers of the Holocaust. Six million European Jews were annihilated during World War Two; among them were most members of Tomi’s extended family. How, Tomi wondered, could so much hate take root at the heart of Europe? The thirty-five members of his family who perished were farmers, shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, mothers and children.

In 1935, the year of  Tomi’s birth, they had every reason to hope for the future. Within a decade, their neighbours and fellow countrymen would betray them and send them to a hellish death at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal killing apparatus.

The RTÉ/Irish Film Board feature documentary Till the Tenth Generation (2009) took Tomi back to the most traumatic days of his life. It was he said ‘the time of the devil’ as he retraced the last steps of his loved ones who were gassed, worked to death, starved or guillotined by reason of their race, religion and political views.

The RTÉ documentary Close To Evil (2014) took as its starting point Tomi’s quest to meet one of Hitler’s willing executioners: the convicted SS war criminal Hilde Michnia. Hilde Lisiewicz, as she was in 1945, was on duty in Bergen-Belsen during the period that Tomi, his brother Miki and his mother Judith were incarcerated and slowly starving. Tomi’s grandmother, Rosalia Scheimowitz, perished from hunger on Hilde Lisiewicz’s watch at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.

In the multi-award-winning Close to Evil, Hilde Michnia made a number of incriminating statements. Frau Michnia openly admitted in interviews she gave in 2004 that she was also involved in the forced ‘evacuation’ from the Gross-Rosen network of camps in what is now Poland to the town of Guben in January 1945.

We know that the word ‘evacuation’ was a euphemism for a manic, lethal commitment to persecute and kill Jews right to the bitter end of the Third Reich on what became known as ‘death marches’. We know from the accounts of survivors such as Luba Varshavska, who spoke to Tomi in her home near Tel Aviv, that hundreds of female prisoners died on the cruel trek from Grünberg to Guben in the middle of winter. Many were shot for failing to keep up with the forced pace of the slog through snow and ice and biting winds. In her recorded testimony, Hilde Michnia claims she witnessed no ill-treatment of prisoners; indeed, she asserts that they were fed and cared for as well as could be expected by her and her SS comrades.

Now Tomi has set himself the task of bringing this unrepentant SS guard to account, not only for her complicity in war crimes but for her public distortion of the truth and denial of the Shoah.

Ironically, Tomi’s generosity of spirit has helped to heal others with a Nazi past. From Germany to Australia, those prepared to confront both the actions and the shame of their forefathers have found Tomi to be an inspiration and a source of support.

In January 2015, following a public screening of Close to Evil in Lüneburg, Hilde Michnia’s admission that she was a participant in the Grünberg to Guben ‘evacuation’ in January 1945 prompted the German authorities to open an investigation into the then 93-year-old Hamburg woman. After the German premiere, a formal complaint was filed by Hans-Jürgen Brennecke, the son of a Nazi policeman whose father had justified the slaughter of Jews on the basis that ‘it was them or us’. Brennecke is a man who has faced up to the skeletons in his family cupboard. He believes many more Germans have still to come to terms with what their fathers and mothers did during the Third Reich. In the case of Hilde Michnia, Brennecke submitted that her claims that there was no maltreatment of prisoners on her watch at either the Gross-Rosen–affiliated camp or Bergen-Belsen amounted to ‘Auschwitz Luge’ – Holocaust denial, a criminal offence in Germany.

Whether or not Hilde Michnia eventually faces trial is not the point of the process initiated by Hans-Jürgen Brennecke and supported by Tomi Reichental. Their aim is to confront the legally uncontested claims of an SS guard that under her care frightened, famished and frozen slave labourers were fed cocoa and hot soup – when those who survived this ordeal can recall only fear and loathing and the sound of gunfire directed at those who could not keep up with the pace of the retreat from the advancing Soviet Red Army.

This book, first published in 2011, is a bestseller. It is, however, not the end of the Tomi Reichental story. Anything but. In 2015, two Irish universities, NUI Maynooth and Trinity College Dublin, bestowed on Tomi honorary doctorates for his ‘mission of remembrance’. Soon Dublin City University will confer a similar honour on Tomi. But it is the affection of ordinary people that is most striking. Tomi is often stopped in the street or on trains and trams by strangers eager to shake his hand and wish him well in his work.

Every week Tomi speaks to students at schools all over Ireland. Close to 100,000 Irish second-level students have heard Tomi describe ‘the indescribable’. Wherever he goes, he is received as a valued, special citizen of the Irish Republic.

In 2014 Tomi won a Rehab People of the Year Award. A frequent contributor to high-profile TV and radio shows, Tomi’s commitment to truth and reconciliation is regularly the subject of sympathetic media coverage. He is now a national figure whose actions are reverberating beyond Irish shores.

Remarkably, in June 2015, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Tomi was invited to speak about the Holocaust to the congregation of a large Dublin mosque. The Imam of the West Dublin–based Islamic Educational and Cultural Centre, Dr Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri, pointed out that this was ‘a unique event in modern Europe, if not the world’. The Imam hopes that the example of Tomi reaching out to, and being embraced by, Irish Muslims will be a beacon for the rest of Europe to follow.

Far from putting his feet up and taking it easy, Tomi Reichental is starting a new chapter in his remarkable life. He is embarking on new adventures and taking on fresh challenges. Long may he continue to inspire with his big heart, his open mind and his generosity of spirit.

The journey continues. The man who was a boy in Belsen is still restless, and has ‘miles to go before he sleeps’.

Gerry Gregg