Reichenal, 79, lectures on the Holocaust to Irish schoolchildren.
They both realized they were very likely on the same cattle car that toook them to a notorious concentration camp.
It was one day in Prague, following his liberation, and suffering from tuberculosis, when his family were reunited by chance when he and his mother, who had also miraculously survived Bergen-Belsen, ran into each other on a busy street. Mother and son successfully communicated with his father and immigrated to America.
But even he is surprised by how quickly the Internet can connect two people.
It's thanks to the internet (and a freelancer reporter in Taiwan) that Peter is now in touch with Tomi Reichenal, a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor in Dublin.
Both men now believe they may have been in the same train car on their horrific journey to the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen.
The man who brought them together was reporter 65 year old Dan Bloom. Instrumental in connecting these two courageous men, Bloom says it is “a story to repair the world,” the kind he’s always looking for.
“I have known Peter [Kubicek] for about ten years as an email friend,” Bloom told IrishCentral. “We have emailed a few times a week for the past 5 years. He has written a memoir of this time in the camps and I have read it and been touched by it.”
It was during one of their routine email interactions that Kubicek sent Bloom a New York Times article from March 14 – an article featuring Dublin-resident Tomi Reichental. Reichental is a 79-year old retired jeweler who has received much acclaim in Ireland for his talks at schools about his life in the camps.
The New York Times article focused on Reichental’s involvement in the documentary “Close to Evil,” which follows Reichental’s journey as he attempts to contact Hilde Michnia, a 93-year old woman who worked as a SS Nazi guard at Bergen-Belsen.
After reading the article, Kubicek noticed many similarities between Reichental’s youth and his own. “I, too, was born in Slovakia, in a town called Trenčin. I, too, was persecuted as a Jew, when in March, 1939, Slovakia became a quasi-independent Fascist state, firmly allied with Nazi Germany,” he told Bloom.
“I, too, escaped the deportations of Jews in 1942, most of them to their death in Auschwitz,” Kubicek added. “I, too, was finally deported in November, 1944, to Bergen-Belsen — in the first transport that was routed to Germany, rather than to camps in Poland.”
There was one quote of Reichental’s, in particular, that caught Kubicek’s eye. “People tell me I’m the fittest Holocaust survivor alive today.”
In an email to Bloom, Kubicek said, “While Tomi will soon be 80, I have already reached the venerable age of 85. I would only take exception to Tomi’s statement to the NYT reporter in Ireland that he is the fittest Holocaust survivor alive today. Tomi, you have not met me — though I wish we could meet.”
Struck by the parallels between these strangers’ lives and a desire to bring them together, on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Bloom took the story to the San Diego Jewish World, a website where he is a regular contributor. “I loved the two comments (about being the fittest Holocaust survivor)... I had the idea to write a story for the SDJW which would set the stage for a possible reunion of the two men,” says Bloom.
Wishing to contact Reichental in Dublin, Bloom contacted the New York Times to no avail and struggled to see how he would bring the two men together.
But news of Bloom’s interest in the comparison between Reichental and Kubicek had already spread to Dublin – an email from Reichental himself landed in the inbox of San Diego Jewish World.
To Bloom’s delight, Reichental was interested in contacting Kubicek. “I am writing to you as I would like to get the email address of Peter Kubicek...I go sometimes to New York, too, so it might be a possibility to meet Peter some day in person.”
Bloom connected the two men, and since their initial contact earlier this week, Reichental and Kubicek have continued discussing the similarities of their experience via email.
The more they shared, the more similarities they realized. Kubicek told IrishCentral, “I was very surprised. We compared notes and I suspected that we we were on the same cattle car transport from the Slovak concentration camp of Serad to Bergen-Belsen in November 1944 which was the first transport that went there instead of Poland. He [Reichental] confirmed that that was the one.”
In his email to Kubicek, Reichental states, “It was the 2nd of November when we were deported from Sered and we arrived on the 9th to Bergen Belsen... it was the first transport from Slovakia with children, mothers and the elderly that didn’t go to Birkenau because the gas chambers were blown up by the Germans on the 7th of November due to the advancing Russians towards the camp.
“We were in the cattle cart traveling at the time and must have been diverted to Bergen-Belsen. We lived in block 207.”
Reichental shares Kubicek’s surprise at how quickly the two men were able to connect. “This modern technology – everything is happening very very fast.”
“It’s an amazing thing – the people who were in Bergen-Belsen – it’s an amazing feeling to meet somebody that has that connection. That’s what sort of connected us, there was nothing else, but when you meet someone who has also lived through horrific times. It makes us special and we have an affinity to each other because we were in the same place, which was a horrific experience.”
Reichental now gives talks and lectures on the Holocaust in schools throughout Ireland. He likes to keep a record of all the schools where he has given a talk and, to date, the total stands at 72,000 students.
“It is the last chance. We are the last witnesses to this horrific crime that happened not long ago, and to speak against those people who are trying to deny the Holocaust,” Reichental says. “I spoke directly to 72,000 students here in Ireland and I think they tell their parents and friends and my story reaches hundreds and thousands.
“It is important for me. I owe it to the victims. I lost 35 members of my family and it’s very important that we speak to young people – that they hear the story and tell their children that they met a Holocaust survivor.
“It’s not easy – reliving my past – I started to lecture 11 years ago. I didn’t speak about it for 55 years before this and when I first started it was hard.”
Reichental has been highly commended for his role and was last year awarded the International Person of the Year at the Irish People of the Year awards. He is now in such high demand that he is fully booked right up until the end of 2016.
Peter Kubicek has also spoken out about his memories culminating in the publication of his memoirs “Memories of Evil: A World War II Childhood” in 2012. Speaking of his writing, Kubicek feels that it is another experience shared with Reichental – “Tomi mentioned to me that for many years he didn’t talk about it and that is true of many of the rest of us too. They talk now of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that’s certainly what we were all suffering from. It took us all a long time to live with our memories, but I found that once I started writing it was like I was starting catharsis, like a boulder fell from my back and the process was almost therapeutic.”
Tomi Reichental doesn’t know where this new contact with Peter Kubicek will take him. Bloom talks of the pair meeting and Reichental admits that it may be a possibility. He tells IrishCentral, “Some time – nothing in planning right now but I have a couple of ties in New York and my son lives in the States but in California.”
“I visit him every year so it could happen, that if I really wanted to plan it, that I could meet him in New York...we will let each other know.”
Kubicek is eager for the meeting to happen if possible. “He [Reichental] tells me that he comes occasionally to New York and I would love to host him here. I work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I would love to take him for lunch there. My family would to love to meet him. He’s supposed to let me know.”
Of his own contribution to the story, Bloom says, “So many Holocaust stories are sad and tragic, as they need to be, of course, but with Peter and Tomi I want to celebrate humor and warmth and two good men, who led good lives and conquered the evil that once ruled Europe.”