A SAD and unexpected double bereavement in Co Kildare in recent weeks marked the passing of a brother and sister whose childhood was overshadowed by the one of the darkest periods in the story of man’s inhumanity to man.
On 10 December last, Zoltan Zinn-Collis, a survivor of Hitler’s Holocaust, died unexpectedly at his home in Athy.
His death was a cause of great sadness for his family, for his neighbours in Athy where he had lived humbly for decades, and for those who had admired his quiet passion to educate a younger generation about the horrors which he had witnessed as a child growing up in eastern Europe.
However, the sense of sadness at Zoltan’s passing was redoubled when news came through that less than three weeks later, on 27 December. his older sister, Edita, had died -- also suddenly – while visiting Zoltan’s family at their Athy home.
Thus, brother and sister, who were the only members of their original family of four children and two parents to have survived the Bergen Belsen camp, died within three weeks’ of each other, both unexpectedly.
It was a sad and extraordinary end to the life stories of a brother and sister whose lives were bound up with one of the cruelest catastrophes to have been visited on the human world.
And yet, as Zoltan would emphasise in telling his story, in the aftermath of the great cruelty which he witnessed, there were individuals who displayed kindness and generosity.
One such humanitarian who loomed large in the lives of Zoltan and his sister Edita was Dr Robert Collis, a Dublin doctor, who in 1945 rescued five orphans – including Zoltan and Edita - from the Belsen camp and brought them to Ireland and gave them new lives adopting Zoltan and Edita as his own children.
In a book which he published in 2006 “Final Witness – my journey from the Holocaust to Ireland” co-written with Alicia McAuley and published by Maverick House, Zoltan recalled how his family was destroyed by the Nazi onslaught on the Jewish people.
His father was a Slovakian Jew, his mother a Hungarian Protestant.
The little family -- Zoltan, his older sister Edita, brother Aladar, and a baby sister -- lived in village in the foothills of the Tartra mountains in Czechoslovakia.
Such was the chaos of war that Zoltan never found his original birth certificate but believed he was born in August 1940.
His memories of that time were fleeting but burnt deeply into his psyche so that he could recall vividly how the carefree pleasures of a happy family life – with birthday parties and trips to the cinema – were to be overshadowed by something of unimaginable heartlessness.
Although in late 1944 the Germans were clearly losing the war their pursuit of the “final solution” of Jews, gypsies and the handicapped, was as merciless as ever and soon Nazi informers began to close in on Zoltan’s father who had gone into hiding in the forests.
His mother, a woman of proud Hungarian stock, stood up to the local Nazi Kommandant but his father was betrayed and soon Zoltan and his family were ordered to leave their homes and marched under guard to the local railway station.
Rounded up with other Jewish people from their little town they were pushed on to railway cattle trucks.
And it was here that Zoltan’s father was separated from them never to be seen again – it is thought that he was sent to the gas chambers in the Ravensbruck extermination camp.
It was not the only loss which his family was to suffer on that nightmarish journey crushed together with no sanitation in the cattle trucks.
Later the train halted at a station and Zoltan’s mother got out with his infant baby sister in her arms.
He had a clear memory of a guard on the platform wrestling the infant from his mother’s arms and throwing the baby over a wall before pushing his mother back on the train.
In later years Zoltan remembered that cruel act with great hurt, as he wrote:
“She was my baby sister. We had a right to know each other, and they took that from us.”
The nightmare journey continued to Bergen Belsen where the Zinn family – now just mother, two brothers, and sister – was to suffer further in the hellish conditions where malnutrition and the spread of disease was to claim many lives on top of the Nazi’s extermination campaign.
Zoltan’s heroic mother wasted away and died just as news came of the liberation of the camp while his brother Aladar succumbed to TB and as Zoltan recalled “turned his face to the wall and died.”
Within a year what had been a happy family living an idllyic existence in the forested hills of Slovakia was reduced to two frightened and orphaned children, Zoltan and his sister Edita.
The story of how they were taken under the wing of Dr Robert Collis and the Dutch nurse Johanna, is told in Zoltan’s distinctive style, serious yet laconic, in the book “Final Witness” which is worth seeking out for anybody wanting to follow the story of how two little concentration camp orphans who came to make their lives – in Ireland.
And, in a peculiar twist of fate, having suffered so much but having lived fulfilled adult lives, this remarkable brother and sister, were both to pass away within a few weeks of one another on either side of Christmas 2012.
May they rest in peace.
Series no: 312.
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