Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental said he had first hand experience of hunger and starvation when he addressed the Famine 1848 walk in Ballingarry on Saturday.
A big crowd turned up for the event to hear Mr Reichental recall his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp Bergen Belsen. He told them that 35 members of his own family perished in the Holocaust.
He also recounted how Jewish families had responded to the Irish family with generous donations.
He said it made him proud that his co-religionists made a significant contribution to helping the Irish population in their dire need. It was Lionel de Rothschild, the famous Jewish banker that set up the British Relief Association, the biggest and best organisation at sending food at speed to Ireland. Within a few months Rothschild had raised £400,000, a huge sum of money, equivalent to nearly £40m today.
Rothschild also reached deeper into his own pockets than almost all the Anglo-Irish landlords put together. In 1850, a Dublin newspaper remarked that during the recent famine, Baron Lionel de Rothschild and his family had contributed “a sum far beyond the joint contributions of the Devonshires, Herefords, Lansdownes, Fitzwilliams and Herberts, who annually drew so many times that amount from their Irish estates”.
He said that in the 1840s many poor Irish had to leave their homes to search for sanctuary and salvation. They found it in America. But for his family of Jews from Slovakia there was no such escape from the Nazis.
“We couldn’t get to America or any other country, we were eventually arrested. We were incarcerated, we were starved and humiliated.
35 members of my family perished in the Holocaust. Some were gassed, some were worked to death, some were executed, some were tortured and some were starved.
“In November 1944 my mother, brother and I were arrested in Bratislava by the Gestapo, the German secret Police. We were taken to a detention camp in Slovakia and from there we were transported in a cattle cart to the Concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany near Hanover.
“The journey lasted 7 days. It was the most horrific experience, there were around 50 of us in the carriage with only 4 vents for air, one in each corner of the carriage. The condition deteriorated from day to day. There was no privacy, in the middle of the carriage was a large open barrel with couple of buckets which served as toilet. The stench was unbearable, with no hygiene and very little food or water.
“When we arrived to B.B. Concentration Camp, what we saw there is beyond description. It was hell on earth. We saw emaciated skeletons walking very slowly, aimlessly, shaved heads, eyes sunk in the sockets of the skull. We didn’t even know if they were women or men, only after several days we found out that we were in fact in a women’s camp, you couldn’t see any attributes that they were women, they were only skeletons.
“When they were walking sometimes they just fell, never to get up again, this happened every day several times, so in fact we saw women dying in front of our eyes. Bergen Belsen was not an extermination camp, there were no gas chambers, but people were dying in their thousands, among the death was Anna Frank, she contracted Typhus and passed away about 2 weeks before the liberation. All together around 70,000 inmates died in B.B., mainly due to Typhus, Diphtheria, Tuberculosis, starvation and cold.
“There was a Crematorium in B.B. but it was only used to burn the corpses, for the obvious reasons, the Germans wanted to destroy the evidence of the crimes they were committing in B.B. Eventually so many inmates were dying daily that the crematoria couldn’t cope so the bodies were just thrown outside of the huts. The piles of corpses grew from day to day, by the time we were liberated the piles were 4ft high as far as the eye could see. We were surrounded by thousands of corpses, as children we played among these corpses. The corpses were decomposing and rotting away, the smell was unbearable, but we got used to it.
“We starved; not for a day, not for a week, we starved for months! Our daily food consisted of 2 slices of bread and black coffee in the morning, turnips boiled in water for lunch and 2 slices of bread with coffee in the evening, around 700 calories a day, somebody told me it is equivalent to about 6 crackers a day.
“I know all about hunger. I know all about scavenging for a crust of bread. I know all about the degradation that comes with the constant ache of an empty stomach.
“With all the hardship, starvation and cold my mother brother and myself managed to survive and on the 15th of April we were liberated.
My father was betrayed by a local man and arrested in the village in our farm. He was put in to a cattle cart and was being transported to Auschwitz, thankfully on the way he managed to jump from the train and escape. He joined the resistance army, fought against the German until the end of the war and also survived.
Despite the fact that I lost my basic education from 1942 to 1945 I managed to study in Germany and qualify as a Diploma Engineer and in 1959 I came to Ireland.
The Ireland I see around me today, despite its problems, is a much better and more prosperous place. The Irish people have a deserved reputation for generosity and understanding the plight of those who have been struck by disasters. You know we are our brother’s keepers.
One of the men who helped save my life was John Stout. Last summer I met him in Cork. John was one of the Irishmen who liberated Bergen Belsen in April 1945. He told me it was the best thing he ever did in his life and that he would do it again if he could. Sadly at the beginning of this year he passed away”.