Rescued from the horror by the ‘Irish Schindler’

Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day, but this year’s Irish events will be missing a significant voice, writes Deirdre Cashion

AN EMPTY chair at this Sunday’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration will serve as a painful reminder that the community has lost one of its most passionate and colourful commentators on the horrors of genocide.

Holocaust survivor Zoltan Zinn-Collis, who passed away last December, aged 72, at his home in Athy, Co Kildare, will be sadly missed by those who gather to remember the victims of Nazi atrocities.

The young Zoltan was rescued from the hell of Bergen-Belsen at the age of five by Irish Red Cross doctor Bob Collis.

Collis, a paediatrician from Dublin and known as the ‘Irish Schindler’, rescued the youngster, his sister, Edit, and three other children from certain death, amid the ruins and chaos of post-liberation Europe.

Zinn-Collis’s story is like so many Holocaust narratives. Born to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother in a mountain village between Poland and Slovakia, the family were ruthlessly betrayed to their Nazi masters by a close neighbour in the winter of 1944.

Ripped from the small community, they were deported in stinking cattle trucks, first to Ravensbrück transit camp and then to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.

Zinn-Collis’s earliest memory of the camp is being chastised by a guard for sneaking into the kitchen, scavenging for food.

“We were always starving,” he recalled when I interviewed him a few years ago. “Conditions were pretty grim. It was survival of the fittest at that stage. As kids, we just wandered around the place in packs and we played our games. And when we got tired, we’d sit down on top of a pile of corpses as we didn’t know any different.”

Zinn-Collis lost his father, mother and two of his siblings to the Nazis. But he believes his life on the Collis family farm and time at the Newtown Quaker School in Co Waterford contributed to a happy and “reasonably normal” childhood.

A successful career in the hospitality industry followed his graduation from the prestigious Shannon College of Hotel Management in Co Clare and he raised a family of four daughters, with his wife Joan.

In 1999, he returned to Bergen-Belsen for the first time since liberation, with fellow survivor, Suzi Diamond and an RTÉ camera crew: “I don’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing — going back,” he admitted in an interview shortly before his death. “It stirred up lots of feelings that I can’t even describe. I don’t use that word ‘closure’ because there’s no such thing. It’s not closure but you get a better understanding of life and death. This is life and death.”

Unlike many other Holocaust survivors, he had a philosophical, almost detached view of his life experiences, refusing to allow bitterness or anger to define his life.

He selflessly spent his later years sharing his painful wartime experiences with schools and community groups but never felt he did enough to protect the legacy of the Holocaust.

“I think I should have been more vocal about the Holocaust as a survivor and I suppose I am privileged to be a survivor,” he said. “I should have been more vocal on behalf of the ones who didn’t survive. It’s not the way my life went. I had to make a living and rear a family. But I’d like to have done a bit more for those who couldn’t.”

*This year’s National Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration will take place on Sunday from 6pm-8pm at the Mansion House, Dawson Street, Dublin 2.

Article appeared in the Irish Examiner, Friday,25 January 2013