In the wake of the recent tragedy at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, I was struck by the accuracy and importance of a quote from Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental: “What happened (in the Holocaust) might happen again ... we are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, and possible bystanders.”
His message of warning, as well as the accompanying, urgent call to “actively resist and condemn the return of the evil that turned Europe into a wasteland,” is even more critical today after the deadly, anti-Semitic attack on U.S. soil.
Now an Irish citizen, Reichental, 83, grew up in Slovakia. With the rise of fascism, he and his Jewish family faced harassment and persecution. As a small boy, he ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. All told, 35 members of the Reichental family perished in the Holocaust.
Haunted by that horror, Reichental has spent much of his retirement visiting schools and community groups in Ireland advocating for tolerance and understanding, speaking out against xenophobia and extremism.
I caught up with him when he visited Stonehill College in Easton, shortly before a lecture to the College community.
Through our conversation, Reichental emphasized William Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past,” and his role as a reminder that the issues facing our world today mirror what has happened in history. In particular, the Syrian refugee crisis has opened wounds for Reichental as he sees a cycle of persecution, rape, and violence occurring again. He made clear that as a nation of refugees, we cannot watch people turn away those seeking refuge when our ancestors were in that position once before.
Reichental believes, rightly, that we all have the responsibility to not be a bystander. Through our conversation, he drove home how critical it is that I, and others, share the stories of Holocaust survivors when there is no one left alive to tell them. Reichental fears how quickly the Holocaust will be forgotten when all of the survivors have passed on and are not around to share their stories and prove doubters wrong.
Leaving a sense of purpose in his wake, I and the others who met and witnessed his speech came away with two clear messages: We cannot forget these traumatic years of history and we cannot allow the past to continue.
I learned from Reichental that we can, through hard, tireless work, ensure that the violence and persecution of the Holocaust is not repeated. And as the tragedy in Pittsburgh made clear, that work is needed now more than ever.
Discrimination against Jews is still occurring today. What will happen if there is no one telling these stories and fighting to prevent their recurrence?
Rachel Riani is a graduate of Millbury High School. She is a Stonehill College senior majoring in English with a double minor in Creative Writing and Philosophy.