‘I can forgive but I can never forget’. The words spoken with emphasis and simplicity by the survivor of the Belsen concentration camp came back to me when I heard of the death of Zoltan Zinn-Collis. I was privileged to meet and interview Zoltan some years ago in preparation for an Eye on the man who survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp in the 1940s. Zoltan with his sister Edith were the only survivors of the Zinn family members arrested and imprisoned during the Second World War. Zoltan’s story was one of loss – not only the loss of family but also the loss of identity. He lost both his parents, a baby sister and an older brother, as well as his own childhood. His mother, whose name he could not recall, died in the arms of Zoltan’s sister Edith on the very day that Belsen camp was liberated by the British Army.
He was one of several children taken from the Germany concentration camp to Ireland by Dr. Robert Collis and lived out his life in a country far removed and far different than the country of his birth. He never forgot his past – a past inhabited by a mother he remembered but did not grow to know. Zoltan could never shut out the memories of childhood years spent in Belsen camp. He could not and would not forget. He campaigned for many years to bring the atrocities of the Holocaust to a wider audience. ‘Always remembering’ were the words he inscribed in my copy of Mary Rose Doorley’s book on the survivors of the Holocaust who came to live in Ireland.
His courage demonstrated itself again and again when he addressed school children in this parish and further afield on the evils of war and the history of the Holocaust. He spoke movingly of his family and of the thousands who died in Belsen. His was a personal story, not just of death and suffering, but also of a determination to remind the world of the truth of what happened in Germany during the war. His message was a simple one – we should never forget, we should never allow the truth to be suppressed.
Zoltan never gave up on his self chosen responsibility to remind the world of what happened in Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s. He was a survivor and as a child of the Holocaust he championed the cause of the six million Jews exterminated by Nazi Germany. To Zoltan the lessons of history could only be learned if the survivors spoke out in testimony to the horrors they experienced.
Zoltan carried with him throughout his life the visible signs of childhood illnesses which the inhumane conditions in Belsen had developed and nurtured. Nevertheless he lived a full life in his adopted country where he had arrived as a 4½ year old.
Zoltan was a brave man whose life was shaped and changed by the awful events of his childhood years. That he survived and lived the life he did was a mark of his courage and of his inner strength. He is survived by his wife Joan and daughters Caroline, Nicola, Siobhan and Emma to whom we extend our sympathy.
Ar dhéis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.