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

Remembering the Holocaust – Guest Post by Marilyn Taylor

Author Marilyn Taylor recently spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Evening in Northern Ireland. Marilyn has researched the Holocaust extensively as part of her work as a writer. One of her most popular books, Faraway Home, is about two Jewish children sent from Nazi-occupied Austria to a refugee farm in Northern Ireland. This is based on the true story of the refugee farm in Millisle, County Down.

Here is an excerpt from Marilyn’s moving speech on the night:

Tonight, on the 27th January we are joining other countries round the world that are also marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was finally liberated by Soviet troops.
As well as remembering the Holocaust in Europe, we are also commemorating other violent genocides of recent times in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Appropriately, tonight’s theme: Communities Together, Building a Bridge, reminds us all of the need to reach out to others, and to embrace difference, both far away and close to home.
This theme is also exemplified by the story of the Kindertransports and by the poignantly linked story of Millisle Refugee Farm, both of which have particular historical significance here in Newtownards, which is so close to Millisle.

As we know, the first persecution of the Holocaust, primarily of Jews but also other groups of convenient ‘scapegoats’ began immediately when Hitler and his Fascist Nazi Party were elected to power in Germany in 1933.
It finally ended with the Allied defeat of the Nazis in 1945, after the destruction of six million Jews.
A further five million people, whom the Nazis considered to be “untermenschen”- “undesirable”, were also murdered, including Gypsies – now known as Roma & Sinti – socialists and communists, trade union members, gay and lesbian people, people with disabilities –both mental and physical – Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, Freemasons, and many Slavic people, and of course, all who opposed the Nazis by word or deed.

And these are just the deaths.

After the final Nazi defeat, millions more were left dying or horrifically wounded and tormented in body and spirit.
The mass murder of the Holocaust was carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators on an industrial scale all over Europe. This was ‘killing by assembly line’, with prison camps, forced labour camps and death camps efficiently linked by the Nazi-controlled rail network of Europe.
After his liberation, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote,
“From the depths of the mirror a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”

All this was of course unknown to me, a ‘war baby’ born in England, to a family evacuated from London.
Yet, I retain vivid memories of the war: the terrifying shriek of air raid sirens, my mother running with me in a buggy to the bomb shelter, and the thousands of V1 and V2 rockets that wreaked random death and destruction, striking fear in all our hearts.
Later, growing up in grey post-war London and learning what was then the recent history of the Second World War and of the Holocaust, I began to realise how lucky I had been, sheltered from the terror in Europe by an accident of geography.
My sister and I could have been among the huge numbers of Jewish children who died at the hands of Nazis and Fascists – of hunger and disease, in the ghettoes, in the boxcars, in the concentration camps, and in the gas chambers.
This realisation has stayed with me, and I think eventually led me much later to try to write about the Holocaust in a way that I hoped would capture the imagination of both young and adult readers, and help keep the memory alive.

In the late 1930s a few British Christians, Jews, and especially Quakers, came together, having witnessed the increasingly vicious treatment of Jews, both young and old, in Nazi Germany– through public humiliation, beatings and round-ups by Nazi thugs & SS men.
Together this group pressed the British government to allow in Jewish children, the most at risk.
After the terrible warning of “Kristallnacht” (the Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938 when Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses were smashed, looted and burned, frantic Jewish parents – themselves refused entry by most countries – made the difficult decision to send their children to Britain on these Kindertransports.
In this way about ten thousand German, Austrian and Czech unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of sixteen, were rescued from the clutches of the Nazis just before the War.
The children, each clutching a small suitcase with a few precious belongings (though nothing of value was permitted) said farewell to their parents, few realising that they might not see each other again.
Former refugees later described those never forgotten heart-breaking scenes at the railway station to me in graphic detail.

They travelled in groups of two or three hundred, each wearing labels with name and destination.
On their arrival in Britain, fearful and bewildered, and of course speaking little or no English, they were sent all over the country, to boarding schools, castles, farms, family homes – wherever people would take them in.
A random group ended up in Northern Ireland, and the small Belfast Jewish community immediately responded.
Some were fostered by local families, both Christian and Jewish. An old farm at Millisle, Co Down – known as Magill’s- was leased, initially housing thirty to forty children, plus older German-Jewish refugees training in agriculture in Northern Ireland.
(Later some of these trainees were involved in setting up early communal farms, “kibbutzim”, in the fledgling country of Israel.)
Adult refugees helped administer the farm.

About three to four hundred, mostly young people, passed through Millisle between 1938 and its closure in 1948.
Funds were raised by the Belfast and Dublin communities, from the Central British Fund in London, and the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture.
Belfast Jewish community leaders set up a Refugee Aid committee; a Committee for German Refugees was also launched in Belfast with funding from the Joint Christian Churches, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Ireland, Quakers and Catholics.
During my research, I tracked down many former refugees, meeting some in person, and sending detailed questionnaires to others. In response, I received phone calls, long descriptive letters, hand drawn maps, photographs and a 14-year-old girl’s moving diary; they all had a story they wanted told.
At Millisle, the young refugees, struggling with homesickness and anxiety about their families far away, had to learn to make a new life.
Neighbours helped to train them in farm work. At the local two-teacher school, (the original Millisle Primary school) each refugee child sat with a local child to help them learn English and perhaps make a friend – which many of them did.
Decades later, some of the former refugees returned to visit Millisle with their own families.
Despite food shortages and air raids on nearby Belfast – and indeed, a raid close by in Newtownards – it was a healthy life, remembered positively by many: going to the beach, fishing, games of Monopoly, football, the small synagogue on the farm, the Belfast rabbi visiting; sometimes concerts in the evenings, often concluding with the traditional Jewish dance, the Hora.
On Saturday evenings, they walked the three miles along the shore to the local cinema in Donaghadee where the owner allowed them in free.

Later, older refugees joined the Air Training Corps, the Red Cross, and the Pioneer Corps of the British Army, to help fight the Nazis.
After the war began, all letters stopped, and the refugees’ only communications with their families were brief Red Cross messages, which ceased after 1943. There were occasional distant rumours about death camps.

However, not until after the war ended in 1945 seven years later, did they learn the horrifying truth. Many had lost every member of their family in the Holocaust. Their parents, by sending them away, had saved their lives. Now most were orphans but in terms of the Holocaust, they were among the lucky ones.

Yet despite everything, many of the former refugees went on to live good and productive lives, never forgetting their families, or Millisle.
And neither they, nor we, will ever forget those people, and those no longer with us, who played such a significant role in this special chapter in the history of Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, there are many lessons that we can learn from the story of Millisle and the devastation of the Holocaust.
Firstly, because there was virtually nowhere Jews facing annihilation could go, a country, Israel, came into being.
The Kindertransport scheme was indeed a shining example of humanity. But put in context, they could only save ten thousand of the one and a half million Jewish children killed because there was no country that would take them in – not Britain, not Ireland, not the United States. When history calls, we all have a responsibility to answer.

Secondly, the Holocaust throws up some of the greatest challenges for us as individuals.
What do you do when a Jew comes knocking on the door at night seeking shelter, when the penalty for taking in a Jew is death, as it was in wartime Europe?
What would any of us do?
And how should we respond when other challenges to our humanity confront us and threaten us?

Thirdly, the Holocaust is not an abstract issue of history – it is about each and every one of us.

As Pastor Niemoller wrote …
“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me”

To find out more about Marilyn’s books click here.