In 1944, nine-year-old Tomi Reichental is imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, along with other members of his family. In this chilling excerpt he recalls a day when something of the horror that the adults lived with on a constant basis was revealed to their children too.
I remember one day in particular when we, the children, were forced to deal with the realities that our adults were living with. We had been at the camp for maybe ten days or so when we followed Margo out for the morning roll-call. As usual, we were kept waiting, this time for an hour, for the SS women. By this stage we were used to this. However, what was unusual about that morning was the fact that they were accompanied by several soldiers who were fully armed. All around me there was feverish whispering: ‘Something is wrong. Why all these soldiers?’
We all had to answer ‘Ja’, when our number was called. But after the roll-call on this morning we were instructed to return to our hut to fetch blankets and towels because we were being taken elsewhere for a hot shower. Now, this was unexpected. I was glad to hear that the water would be hot and very much relieved that I wouldn’t have to face the freezing washroom. Margo led us back to our huts and there was a bit of a scramble for towels. I saw some of the women exchange strange looks while one leaned in to whisper to her neighbour: ‘What do you think? Do you believe them?’ The friend just shrugged in reply, her eyes full of tears. I wanted to ask my mother what was going on but she was busy helping Omama and Chava find towels. Margo stood at the door, urging us to be quick; the guards were outside waiting impatiently. We rushed back out and were put in rows of three before being marched along the perimeter of the camp with soldiers on either side of us. It was very cold and eerily quiet. I felt more scared than usual, but wasn’t sure why, although it did bother me that none of the adults would meet my eye.
Just in front of me I saw a woman remove her wedding ring and fling it into the dirt, muttering to her companions: ‘Those bastards aren’t getting their hands on my gold!’ I couldn’t understand why everyone looked so petrified. Why were they so worried about having a shower? I had heard plenty of women wishing they could have a decent wash in hot water. What was the problem? Of course, the adults knew about the gas chambers at Auschwitz, we children did not. I can only imagine now what those women went through, wondering was that where we were heading.
It felt like we walked miles but maybe it was only for thirty minutes or so. They stopped us in front of a large concrete building which had a tall chimney protruding from its roof. There were several gasps at the sight of it. One woman even cried out: ‘Oh my God!’ Miki and Chava looked as puzzled as I felt.
‘Schnell, schnell!’ The guards began to hurry us inside. It was like a long hall and there was a strong chemical smell that stung the back of my throat. There were many wooden benches and steel trolleys with a long bar on top, where we were told to hang up our coats and clothes. Margo passed on the order to undress and leave everything, including our blankets, on the trolleys. The soldiers stood around and stared at the naked mothers and grandmothers, cracking jokes about them and making rude faces. I was ashamed and shamed at the same time. At nine years of age I couldn’t have articulated my feelings, but I did feel tainted in some way. Needless to say, I had never seen a naked woman before. It was shocking to see the garishly white, wrinkled, pathetic bodies of the older women, not to mention my own grandmother’s; they seemed so sad and defenceless. The leering soldiers added to the horrible tension. There was a particularly uncomfortable moment when one of the soldiers, who looked much younger than the rest, approached us, his gaze firmly on the naked Chava. Just like Miki and me, my eight-year-old cousin didn’t look typically Jewish. Her hair was blond and very fine, and fell well past her shoulders. Margo stepped in front of her daughter and coolly met the soldier’s eye. Haughtily he asked her: ‘What is this little Aryan girl doing here?’ My aunt’s reply was brief and purposely loud enough to be heard by the SS women: ‘Go away!’ Fortunately he did what he was told, without another word.
Despite the constant cries to hurry up, everyone seemed to move in slow motion. As soon as we were undressed, we were each given a bar of soap and pushed through a metal door, into a large room which had a concrete floor and pipes, with shower heads, criss-crossing the entire ceiling. Then it went silent.
The soldiers stopped shouting and hung back from us, as the door was slammed behind us. All the women stared at the ceiling, and some of them began to cry quietly. My mother grabbed me and Miki into her body which was icy cold to touch. Her heart was beating very fast and her breathing sounded forced, as if she was gulping for air. I was too confused and terrified to say anything; in fact, nobody spoke a single word. I don’t know how long we stood there, perhaps it was a few minutes or perhaps it was only seconds before we heard a rumbling in the pipes. All around the room, women embraced their children, never taking their eyes off the ceiling. Suddenly warm water spurted out of the shower heads – which, of course, was just what I and the other children had expected. I waited for my mother to release me so that I could wash myself with the soap. Once again I was mystified by the women’s reactions. Some of them sobbed and laughed at the same time as they reached up to touch the water. Others hugged each other, smiling in delight, and using words like ‘blessing’ and ‘miracle’. Children were kissed and even splashed playfully by their mothers. I hadn’t seen such smiles nor heard such laughter in a long time.