On the 15th of April, 1945 British Troops entered Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany. Emaciated corpses lay everywhere. The living lay with the dead. Up to 60,000 men, women and children had been crowded into the Camp which had been built to accommodate 9,000.
The doctors from the British Army together with Army and Red Cross nurses set to work. It took them four and a half weeks to clear the Concentration Camp and to create a vast Hospital holding 17,000 patients out of a nearby German Army Compound. Amongst them was an Irish born doctor, Robert Collis, a childrens physician who had responsibility for the 500 or more children in the Camp. Despite his best efforts more than 100 of these children died soon after liberation. The majority of the children who were affected with typhus or tuberculosis were in time reunited with their relatives. However a small number of children remained unclaimed and amongst them was a brother and sister Edith and Zolton Zinn, aged seven years and five years respectively.
The Zinn family had lived in the foothills of Tatra Mountain in former Czechoslovakia not far from the village of Gerlachov. Arrested by the Germans they and hundreds more were transported by cattle trucks to Belsen. In the ensuing confusion Adolf Zinn was separated from his wife and children and was never seen again. The youngest Zinn child, a babe in arms, died on the train journey to Belsen. Despite the atrocious conditions in Belsen Concentration Camp Mrs. Zinn and her children survived for a while only for the mother to die in the arms of her seven year old daughter Edith as the British soldiers entered the Camp. The tragedy of her death was all the more acute given that help was then at hand. When she died her name died with her never again to be known to her children to whom she was simply called Mother. Within a short while her eldest son Aladar also died leaving Edith and Zolton alone in the world.
Dr. Robert Collis wrote of his experiences in the Belsen Camp in his book "Straight On - Journey to Belsen and the Road Home" in which he related this description of the young bedridden Zolton Zinn
"he lay moaning to himself in a corner. He was but five years old. His side made him cry nearly all the time and his big brown lovely eyes were full of pain. He never spoke. It nearly broke our hearts to look at him."
When his work in Belsen was finished Dr. Collis decided to bring to Ireland seven of the young children who remained in the Camp without family or friends. Edith and Zolton Zinn were among those seven who on arrival in Ireland were nicknamed "the Belsen children".
Zolton Zinn was seven years of age when he arrived in Ireland in 1947 having spent some time recuperating in Malmo, Sweden. Suffering from T.B. he was initially hospitalised in Fairy Hill Hospital, Howth, Dublin before joining his sister Edith in the home of Dr. Robert Collis at Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Irish adoption laws did not permit Dr. Collis, a Protestant, to adopt Slovakian children but in all other respects Edith and Zolton were part of the Collis family and adopted the Collis name.
Zolton Zinn Collis as he is known today has lived in Athy for the past fifteen years having first come to the area to work as a Chef in Kilkea Castle. As a survivor of the Holocaust. Zolton who until recently did not speak of his experiences has now had his personal recollections included in a recent book by Mary Rose Doorly entitled "Hidden Memories". The horror and sadness of his story is tempered by his quite extraordinary attitude which does not curry sympathy or seek undue publicity. The Nazi savagery which destroyed his family had understandably left him haunted by the images of the past. Images such as that of his distraught mother resisting a German solder's attempt to wrest the tiny corpse of her dead baby from her arms during a short stop-over on the train journey to Belsen are typical of the flashbacks which come to his mind after the elapse of almost fifty years.
"I can never forget" he says as he ponders aloud the words of an Israeli Prime Minister who declared "Only the dead can forgive, we have no right to forgive on their behalf". For Zolton the question raises issues which he cannot as yet answer.
The tolerance and forgiveness with which he was imbued during his school days in Newtown, the Quaker boarding school in Waterford, have stood him in good stead as he wrestles with the memories of his past. For Newtown he reserves the highest accolade as having brought the greatest influence to bear on his life.
"We should all learn from the past but not live in the past - we should forgive but not forget" are the words of the man who takes pride in the fact that he is a survivor. He is left with his memories of a time which should never again be repeated and of a family and a country which can never again be his. His losses are more than one man should bear but Zolton Zinn Collis is a survivor who has fashioned for himself a life made bearable by an attitude of forgiveness and tolerance. "After all", he says "I owe it to those who did not survive".