A HOLOCAUST survivor who described the unimaginable horror of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II received a two minute standing ovation from 1,000 people at a County Limerick secondary school.
In 1944, nine-year-old Tomi Reichental was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, along with other members of his family.
In his address to students and staff at John the Baptist Community School in Hospital, Tomi discussed growing up as a Jewish child in occupied Slovakia and the torment of seeing thousands of dead bodies in the concentration camp.
“We have all seen movies and read books but when you hear the words from somebody ‘I saw it’ - it is very, very powerful. It was one of those red letter days that will be remembered for a long, long time,” said Fr Sean Fennelly, school chaplain who invited Tomi to the school.
“We ended up with a crowd of 1,000. It was a huge success for the school and for people personally. His story was very interesting. When he finally said that he would visit in person it was one of those things that happens once in a very blue moon,” Fr Fennelly added.
Tomi who is now 76 and lives in Rathgar, Dublin, visited Hospital with his partner Joyce and described the lecture as “the biggest and most exciting I have ever given”.
“It was unforgettable,” he said.
“You could drop a pin and you could hear it. The largest group I lectured to was about 700, there was 1,000 in Hospital. When I finished my lecture I got a standing ovation with clapping for two minutes,” he said.
During his visit to County Limerick, Tomi visited the convent in Hospital where he enjoyed a “beautiful breakfast” “and because we still had time Sean took us to the beauty spot, Lough Gur. The organisation was incredible”.
Fifth year student at John the Baptist Community School, Daniel McGuire from Ballybricken, described the lecture as a “once in a lifetime experience”.
“It was an amazing talk. It was really special. I would have known a bit about the Holocaust but it was great to get a further insight into it - you wouldn’t get that from a book. There was about 1,000 people in the gym and it was dead silence throughout. I told them about it at home, you kind of had to talk about it – you couldn’t keep it to yourself,” said the 17-year-old.
What stood out for Daniel was Tomi’s account of “spending seven days on a cattle train followed by a two and a half hour walk in the mud before they finally got to Bergen-Belsen”.
Jackie Lynch from Garryspillane was also moved by the lecture.
“It was very good to hear it first hand. He started crying a few times – it was emotional for him too,” said the 17-year-old who went home and told her parents Christy and Kit about the talk.
David McCarthy from Glenroe described the experience as “unbelievable”.
“It was unreal to think that he could talk so openly about it – it must have been unbelievable. There was one thing that hit me – he saw his grandmother being thrown on a heap of bodies when she died. Everyone was emotional really on the day. Just as he was leaving he unveiled a plaque in our school, and he put a quote of his own from his book, it read: ‘Holocausts do not begin with gas chambers, they begin with whispers’. It was touching and it’s a great memory to have in the school,” said David.
Former teacher at the school Jim O’Farrell said “it was a privilege to listen to the dignified way in which Tomi described his experience at Bergen-Belsen and to hear him speak with such a sense of forgiveness”.
Tomi Reichental has penned a book on his Holocaust experience entitled ‘I was a boy in Belsen’ and has lectured across the world.
On June 5 he will travel to Bergen-Belsen to give a lecture to the school and to give his testimony for the archives of Bergen-Belsen.