After being silent on the subject for fifty-five years, Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental finally began talking about his experiences fourteen years ago. A Jew born in Slovakia, he was taken to Bergen-Belsen at just eight years old in the final throes of the war, remaining there for a year until the liberation in 1945.
Now he has started talking, “they can’t stop me”, he says with a chuckle. Having published a book (I Was a Boy in Belsen, 2011), made three documentaries (Till the Tenth Generation, 2009; Close to Evil, 2013; Condemned to Remember, 2017), and talked in schools, universities, mosques and churches all over the world, his dedication to telling his story is evident. His drive comes from a belief in the importance of remembering, having met so many students for whom the memory of the Holocaust is already buried deep in history. He insists that “we must not forget and you have to carry the memory … I hope that the people I talk to, they never forget.”
Not only must we not forget what happened in the past, but we must be aware of its hold on the present. He tells me fervently “when I see the refugees walking and they’re buckled down with their little parcels, and when I look at historical pictures of Jewish people – it’s the same”. The problems we face today are all too close to the tragedy Reichental lived through, and it is this link in particular which he is keen to establish in his talks, for “the past is not even past, it’s unfortunately history repeating itself.”
I wonder if, unlike the secrecy of the concentration camps, our present hyper-exposure to world events through the internet has shaped a culture that is overwhelmed by and indifferent to the sheer magnitude of suffering people face across the world. He agrees that back in the thirties and forties “people were able to say “we didn’t know” … but today, not only we know, we’re seeing it on the television, it’s part of our entertainment, and we can’t do anything about it, and that’s why I say, today it is even worse than what happened during the Holocaust.” It is a bleak image of an individual faced with the impossibility of combatting world suffering, especially so since he describes today’s indifference as worse than the atrocity he lived through. It recalls the apathy of Reichental’s fellow citizens in Slovakia, who watched and did nothing as the Nazis took away the Jewish members of their society. In these cases of mass suffering, he says, “we can’t help, we can only hope.”
Yet Reichental is aware of the influence of his role as an individual, too. He talks of the power of a single voice, saying that his speaking “is something that I feel, this is my … I have to speak about it because in the next fifteen, twenty years, none of us will be left and then the nihilists will have the free hand to be able to say that the Holocaust didn’t even happen.” When the Holocaust is no longer in living memory, Reichental fears the voices of others might write his experiences out of history altogether. Although the individual might have little power to stop world suffering, there is a sense that they can do a great deal in ensuring the truth is preserved.
At this point I ask him about a 93-year-old woman named Hilde Michnia, an SS guard at the camp Reichental was incarcerated in as a child. His 2013 documentary Close to Evil records his attempt to meet her, when he was prepared to say to her ‘let’s forget the past, let’s talk about the future’, to “give her an opportunity to really … say she’s sorry”. But the meeting was abruptly cancelled just before he boarded the flight to Germany. It was then that he learned this woman was not prepared to show any remorse for what she had done, and had even attempted to cover up the reality of what had happened. “Her lies were so blatant,” he tells me, “she said for example that, when the camp was liberated there were thousands and thousands of corpses lying around, and she said in her interview, ‘I can’t understand why Josef Kramer’ – Josef Kramer was the commander of Bergen-Belsen – “why he brought these corpses into Bergen-Belsen”, so now she was also denying that these people died there, that he brought these corpses in.” In a world where a witness to the Holocaust can readily deny that it happened, and attempt to rewrite the past, Reichental’s testimony is of immense significance.
If reconciliation with people like Hilde Michnia is unachievable because of a complete lack of remorse or guilt, does he think that it is right or possible to forgive them? Thoughtfully, he tells me “I was prepared to reconcile with her, not forgive her for what she did … I can’t forgive.” Reichental insists on a distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness, because to refuse to reconcile would only cause more suffering on his part. He says “make peace with the past, so it doesn’t spoil your present, that’s what I live by.” So, Reichental will never forgive Michnia, but has been able to move forward from her cruel actions. In fact, he goes as far as to say that “she was a victim of her time, and I always say if I was born into that environment, who knows what I would have done?” I am struck by his capacity for empathy with such a woman, even as he acknowledges that “she was evil, and she’s still evil.” And in speaking out against her false testimony, Reichental has proven the power of an individual voice: in 2015, as a result of his documentary, German authorities finally began investigating Michnia for her role in the Holocaust.
As the conversation shifts to ideas about good and evil, I ask Reichental about his description of his childhood before the camp as ‘paradise’, and the distinction between innocence and experience. He describes a series of jarring contrasts: his Edenic childhood “running barefoot and being free” in the countryside of Slovakia, and children playing hide-and-seek amongst piles of decayed corpses in the camp; a group of men in a boardroom “drinking the best brandy and smoking the best cigars”, and the decision to eradicate the entire Jewish population; the transformation of people into animals at the slamming shut of a cattle train door.
Is there any way to reconcile these contrasts, to reclaim a sense of ‘paradise’ after an experience which he describes as “hell on earth”? His definitive answer is yes, “I’m very happy, you know, I enjoy my life, I’m doing what I want to do.’ When people around him complain, he tells them ‘you don’t know what you have here, it is a paradise, you have everything here … we have freedom, we are not involved in any terrible things … but people are never happy enough, always they have something to complain about”, he adds with a warm laugh. To be content with what you have is Reichental’s idea of paradise, as simple as his childhood running barefoot in the fields of Slovakia, a happiness that is never completely lost in adulthood.
Has Reichental’s relationship with faith changed as a result of his experiences? “Of course it did, even though I was a little boy, but it stayed in my mind, when I was incarcerated and people were … praying to God, and this was the time that we wanted God to help us and of course it never happened, and so I lost trust in this.” But, he continues with the warm humility he has shown so many times over the course of our short meeting, he survived, so “maybe I’m wrong, maybe someone was looking after me, so I’m a great supporter of people who are believers and if it helps them, good, it’s only good.”
I get a sense that so much of the time there isn’t much one individual can do when faced with the vast and overwhelming problems of the world, especially today when images of suffering are hurled at us from every angle. Yet, through his speaking, Reichental is changing worlds. As his experience with Hilde Michnia shows, just one voice can rewrite history, so it is up to everyone to “carry the memory”, preserving the truth of the past with honesty, empathy, and faith to take into the future. The message this extraordinary man leaves me with is one of absolute optimism and dedication. Will he ever grow weary of telling his story? “No, I’m not getting tired, and I will be talking until I can … I owe it to the victims.”