Musings on I Was a Boy in Belsen

June 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

It is reckoned that five hundred inmates died in Bergen-Belsen every day through March 1945.

 I think it was back sometime in December/January that Tomi Reichental paid a visit to UCD (University College Dublin, the university I’m currently attending) to talk about his experiences in the concentration camp. I remember the large queue to get into the fairly small lecture theatre where the talk was taking place. I remember how the whole theatre was filled with people so that every seat was occupied, how latecomers sat themselves down on the stairs, how there were people filling the entirety of the theatre, just waiting to listen to what Mr. Reichental had to say.

The theatre was completely silent as Mr. Reichental walked in, sat down, began to speak. All those people gathered in such a close space, yet not a word was spoken. The more he spoke though, the more tears were shed amongst the crowd. My friend Thelma, who sat beside me, was in constant floods, continually reaching over to get the tissues I had laid out in front of me. I shed a few tears myself as he continued to speak of the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. Afterwards, our friend Meghan informed us that everything he had spoken about was elaborated in his book, ‘I was a Boy in Belsen’.

“I’ll lend it to you guys,” She said. “It’s really good.”

I was the first person to get hold of it from Meghan, as, apparently, I’m more emotionally stable than Thelma. And so I began my venture into what Mr. Reichental had conveyed in his book. Let me just start off by saying that this is not a book you should read if you’re looking for a quick, easy read. Though it’s a book that is fairly light on the language, the material is heavy and, at times, quite depressing, as you can imagine.

Reichental writes about his own experiences of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, beginning with his life in Merasice before the deportations to concentration camps began and ending with his return to Bergen-Belsen after many, many years. The book gives an excellent account on the conditions in Belsen.

How we huddled up close behind the decrepit remains of a man or woman. Were we not repelled by the smell or by the dull skin that resembled candle wax or just by the simple fact that here was a dead person? It is a hard thing to explain. That only answer I have today is that we just got used to them, along with the smell of decomposition. After a while, if truth be told, we sort of didn’t see them anymore. There were just so many. Furthermore, one body looked no different from another and, of course, it helped that they were complete strangers to us.

One thing that I really liked about the book was Tomi Reichental’s attitude towards the whole thing. He wasn’t bitter and resentful, even as he gave the talk in UCD. He managed to carry a tone of overall hopefulness throughout the whole talk, a tone that also carries over to the book. As he describes the horrors of the camp, the death and the decay, he doesn’t forget to mention the little glints of hope that he was presented with during his time in the camp.

They were angels, these girls, as far as we were concerned. Each of us ten children were brought to sit on a bed, in place of a table and chair, where we were given sumptuous meals of bread with margarine and jam, soup and black coffee. There were even some drops of milk to be had.

I definitely recommend the book as it is a fantastic portrayal of the Bergen-Belsen camp and the Jewish deportations.

Have any of you guys read the book? If so, what were your thoughts on it?

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