Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental talks forgiveness, the future and why age is just a number
Tomi Reichental’s zest for life would put many people half his age to shame. In his retirement he has forged a new career as a public speaker, so that the memory of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust will never be forgotten. Here he tells us why he never lets age get in the way of what he wants to do.
What does being over the age of 50 mean to you?
“What it means really, it means that you’re getting older [laughs] but at the same time it is only a number, it really depends on the person, how they treat the ageing process. And for me, thank God, as long as you’re healthy it’s only a number. I’m busier today than I was 20, 30 years ago. I had my own business in the jewellery trade at the time so I was busy enough. It’s what you do with it, with your life, that’s the important thing.”
Did you approach retirement as an opportunity to do something new?
“Well I realised I had to make a decision; most people when they talk about retirement, they say, ‘Oh I have to do this and that’ but of course all these things that you’re planning to do, you take a couple of weeks and you do them and then suddenly you say to yourself, ‘What now?’ I couldn’t visualise that retirement for me would mean sitting in a room and watching television; I, in fact, watch television very little, it’s mainly news that I would be interested in or some documentaries. All my life I was very active and when I retired, at the time, I couldn’t sit around, I had to do something.”
When this positive mindset kicked in, what did you decide to do instead?
“I started to write some articles about my experiences from the Holocaust and I sent them to a couple of magazines. They were published and then the media [got in touch with] me and the whole things started. at was really something very positive because from that eventually the Holocaust Education Trust turned to me. I didn’t speak about the Holocaust for a very long time and nobody really knew about me and what I went through. Once they suddenly heard that I’m a Holocaust survivor and of course from the article they learned what I went through, they were very interested and I got involved with speaking in schools, colleges and universities and it’s my life now. Before I didn’t speak to anybody, I didn’t want to tell anybody about it, now they can’t stop me speaking!”
Have you experienced any negativity due to your age or have people ever treated you differently because of it?
“I really must say that anywhere that I speak or meet people, because I’m invited to various events, and of course as somebody who is talking about something that not many people experience, I really can’t complain about having a bad experience with somebody who would criticise me. Everywhere [I go] I’m treated with respect.”
What advice would you give to someone hoping to make a change in their life or their career in their golden years?
“It’s not something that would be unique or that people [haven’t already heard] about but the main thing that I would advise anybody when they retire is to stay active, and I don’t mean only physically active but also mentally active, because that keeps you going. I have a lot of correspondence with people that would write to me and I reply to every person. If they have a question, sometimes they might want to meet me and I invite them to my home and we have tea and we speak. I’ve met every President of Ireland, many politicians and some of them they know me by my first name and when they see me they say, ‘Oh hello Tomi, how are you?’ and all that. It’s just an amazing thing to happen to me after my 70th birthday, so it’s all happening in my old age.”
What has been the most surprising thing to happen since you began your public speaking career?
“It always surprises me that people want to see me. The aim of what I’m doing is to make sure that the Holocaust is not forgotten because I feel that I owe it to the victims that their memory is not forgotten. I lost 35 members of my own family and I think with the activity that I do I’m keeping the Holocaust alive. that’s what I will continue to do for as long as I can do it. I would speak to anybody if they see any bullying or bad behaviour by somebody because they don’t like foreigners or people who have a different religion or people who have a different colour skin, they should not become bystanders; they should get involved and say, ‘This is wrong,’ because if we don’t do this that’s when hatred spreads and it can lead to terrible tragedies.”
What are your future hopes?
“Well you know it’s very difficult to think about the future of my career [laughs] I’m now going on to 84 so I think that my career is where it is and I will continue to do what I’m doing. There are not many things that I didn’t do and I said I had to do, I still travel for pleasure and [for work]. I get invited to places and just recently I was in the States lecturing in Washington DC, in New York, in Long Island, in Boston. I just came back from England and so there are not ambitions as such, nothing on the horizon I would like to achieve or do.”
What helps you grow as a person? Is forgiveness a part of this?
“Well this subject of forgiveness it’s a very complex subject and people do say, ‘Why are you so forgiving?’ It’s not really a forgiveness because personally I have nobody to forgive. e people that harmed me, I never met them. Basically, I think the people that would have to forgive are the people who are unfortunately no longer among us and therefore there is no forgiveness in that sense but I did try to reconcile with people, mainly with one person who was a guard in the Concentration Camp. For me, I don’t carry any hatred. Blaming the people of today, the young people, these people shouldn’t be blamed for what their grandparents did so that’s my sort of stance [on it]. It’s not that I should forgive anybody but I’m personally willing to meet people like [the guard at Bergen-Belsen] and make reconciliation if the opportunity should arise.”
Is there a specific life quote that resonates with you?
“This is directly my own motto that I always quote and it is: make peace with the past so it doesn’t spoil your present and that’s what I do. I’ve made peace with the whole memory and I’m looking forwards, my present is good.”