By Paddy Henry
NUI Galway marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last week with a talk from one of the few people still alive to tell the tale of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The event, which was organised by NUI Galway’s Historical Society, An Cumann Staire, in conjunction with the University’s Irish Centre for Human Rights and supported by the Holocaust Education Trust, saw Tomi Reichental, a survivor of Bergen Belsen concentration camp, give his chilling testimony in front of a packed audience.
Ben Barkow, chair of the Academic Advisory Board of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, interviewed the 83-year-old, speaking to him about his childhood, his time in Bergen Belsen and the importance of never repeating the mistakes of the past.
Tomi was just nine years old when he was captured by the Gestapo in Bratislava and deported to Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany with his mother, grandmother, brother, aunt and cousin.
When the camp was liberated in April 1945, he discovered that 35 members of his extended family had been murdered.
Tomi moved to Ireland in 1959, making a home for himself in Dublin and despite the passage of time and a change of scenery, it wasn’t until 2004 that he began to share his experiences with the public. Since then, Tomi has devoted his life to talking about the tragic reality of the Holocaust in the hope that the victims will never be forgotten.
“For 60 years, I didn’t speak about the Holocaust, now, nobody can stop me”, he said. “As time goes on, the Holocaust is falling behind in our memories and this is the reason I wanted to speak about it”, he added.
The camp was described by Tomi as “hell on earth”, while he spoke about inmates, “walking around like skeletons”, left to survive on a mere 600 calories a day.
His account of life as a survivor drew an emotional reception from the audience, moving some to tears. With one audience member approaching the 83–year–old at the end of his speech, embracing him in an emotional display of gratitude.
Professor Ray Murphy from NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for Human Rights hosted the event and spoke of the importance of Tomi’s message, and how it serves as a reminder of the need for comradery and humanity in today’s times. “Tomi’s message of tolerance and forgiveness is more important today than ever. He reminds us of our common humanity and the need for human solidarity,” he stated.
Sean McSharry from An Cumann Staire expressed his delight at the success of the talk, claiming that about 200 people had to be turned away from the packed hall, although some people even sat in the aisles to hear Tomi’s testimony. Mr McSharry told SIN, “It was a huge, huge success. There was over 250 in the hall, listening to his story and, according to what I heard, they had to turn away about 200 people. It was just great to be associated with it”.
The An Cumman Staire spokesperson also spoke of how encouraged the group were to see the interest young people had in hearing Tomi’s first-hand account of one of history’s most horrific events, adding, “It was very encouraging to see, from standing at the front and looking at the students, it was obvious that they hadn’t got the full story. But when they heard his story, you could see the reaction on their faces. It is very encouraging to see that young people are not prepared to forget this and why we need to look back on history, that’s one of the main reasons why we organised it.”
The An Cumann Staire spokesman also described how events, such as this, reinforce the importance of the subject of history and argued that to neglect history would be to neglect the mistakes of the past, arguing, “I think the reaction of the general public will tell say that, yes, we do have an interest in history. I think that it would be a very unpopular thing for any government to reverse the decision not to downgrade history. We would like history to be kept as a core subject.” He continued, “I don’t think, as we look at an event like we organised with Tomi, we can not only look to things like the Holocaust, but even in our own country, we have stuff like the Famine and the one hundredth anniversaries of the War of Independence, the establishment of the Free State, a decade of centenaries. This decade of centenaries is extremely important and if we take history away from that and we don’t learn from our mistakes, I think history is one of these subjects you need to be a critical thinker of and I think that’s why it’s important”, he added.