I survived the Nazi death camps — but I don’t want war criminals to go to jail

The death this week of a 91-year-old Nazi concentration camp guard brought back a flood of memories for a Co Kildare father.

The man who died, Ukrainian John Demjanjuk, was appealing against his conviction for the murder of 28,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp in Nazi occupied Poland in 1943.

The man who remembered was concentration camp survivor Zoltan Zinn-Collis, who now lives in Athy. Mr Zinn-Collis, who was brought here after the war by a man known as ‘the Irish Schindler’, this week joined in the debate about whether old war criminals should still be sought more than 60 years later.

He strongly believes that the few remaining people guilty of atrocities should still be “hunted down and named and shamed”. But he says they should be spared imprisonment for the little time they have left.

“There’s absolutely no point in locking them up,” he says. “Some of them are going down on Zimmer frames and how much do they really remember of what they did?

“At what point do you start to forgive and forget and at what point do you not carry history with you any more?”
If anyone has reason for bitterness and recrimination it is Mr Zinn-Collis — but he says they are a waste of effort.

His family lived in a small village in the Tatra Mountains, between Poland and Slovakia. As the Nazi regime’s systematic slaughter of the Jews gathered pace in the winter of 1944, Zinn-Collis’s Jewish father was betrayed by a neighbour.  When offered the choice between “denouncing this dirty Jew” or sharing his fate, his Protestant mother had no hesitation in gathering together the family and boarding the stinking cattle truck for deportation, first to Ravensbrück and then to Bergen-Belsen.

It was on the platform at Ravensbrück that young Zoltan saw his father for the last time as screaming women and children were torn from the clutches of fathers, husbands, sons and brothers.

His mood darkens as he discusses the death of his mother on the day the camp was liberated, possibly from typhoid or typhus.

His younger brother and sister had also succumbed to disease and starvation during those terrible years. With his fragile, skeletal-like frame ravaged by starvation, the five-year-old was saved by the intervention of an Irish Red Cross doctor, Bob Collis.

Collis, a paediatrician from Dublin, brought the young Zoltan, his sister and three other children back to Ireland.
Today, Zinn-Collis says he feels no bitterness towards his Nazi tormentors and no burning desire for revenge.

He suggests his regular talks with secondary school students on the horrors of the Holocaust, are a form of rehabilitation, helping him come to terms with his loss.

“If you were bitter, what good would that do you? You’d be such a miserable person — you couldn’t allow any happiness into your life. What’s the point of going through all of that and living, and being like that afterwards?”

Now in his 73rd year, Zinn-Collis attributes a happy life, post-liberation, to his childhood on the Collis family farm. He was a boarder at Newtown Quaker School in Co Waterford, where he made lots of new friends and which largely contributed to his “reasonably normal” childhood.

A third-level qualification followed at the Shannon College of Hotel Management in Co Clare and he went on to a successful career in the hospitality industry, raising a family of his own.

While he may have been able to come to terms with the psychological scars, the physical scars of tuberculosis remain.
“I’ve been to every ‘ologist’ in Tallaght hospital, except the gynaecologist,” he giggles and with a mischievous glint in his eye makes light of the “lovely pink tablets” that he takes to ease his daily mobility.

He remains optimistic for the future and hopes the grand-children of survivors will continue to preserve the legacy of the past.

“Someone in the school yard being bullied and the rest of them look the other way. It’s the same thing. I’d like the grand-children to realise what bastards we can be to one another.”

As appeared in the Irish Independent, 22 March 2012 – article link.

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