Thursday, 13 December 2012

Zoltan Zinn Collis

I was saddened to hear of the death of Holocaust survivor Zoltan Zinn Collis on Monday last. Zoltan was one of the last surviving Holocaust survivors and he settled in my home town of Athy. Zoltan Zinn was born in Slovakia in 1940, son of a Jewish labourer and a Hungarian Protestant woman. His father was suspected to have died in Ravensbruck in 1945. He had two sisters and one brother. His youngest sister died at age one and a half years old in transit to Bergen-Belsen. At a talk in our youth club, Zoltan recalled that a Nazi soldier, realising that the infant was dead, took her from her mothers arms and threw her out of the carriage. Zoltan's brother Aladar developed TB and died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. On April 15th 1945 Zoltan's mother died, this was the same day that the Red Cross had come to save them.
The head of the Red Cross at this time was an Irish doctor called Bob Collis. Dr. Collis was accompanied by a Dutch nurse Han Hogerzeil (who was later to become his second wife) and called Dr. Collis to look at "the most enchanting scrap of humanity" she had found. It was Zoltan, who, upon meeting Dr Collis promptly informed him in German "My father is dead, you are now my father". Dr Collis kept his word to Zoltan and took him, his sister Edit and three other children back to Ireland without travel documents. Homes were found for the three other children and according to Zoltan, two of these children became the first legal Irish adoptees. Zoltan and Edit stayed with Doctor Collis. 

Zoltan began talking about his experiences in 1995 when the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust was marked. He spoke in schools, universities, youth clubs etc. all around the country hoping to ensure that we "never forget". I remember when Zoltan visited our youth club in Athy a number of years ago. It was something else to see our normally boisterous members transfixed and so silent that one might have heard a pin drop. Just silence and the quiet tones of Zoltan, this man who most of us had seen around our small,sleepy town telling his extraordinary story.
As one of the last handful of Holocaust survivors in Ireland he said he felt a strong obligation to speak to people about the 12 million that died. He was very eager that he didn't want to sound like "a saint or something" but determined to get these stories out there for other people who weren't so lucky. He was very conscious that when he mentioned it that people might think 'Oh not the bloody holocaust again'. He was also very conscious of the events going on in  Darfur or Sri Lanka, the Bosnian conflicts, Lebanon, Palestine and that precious little had changed in the world today and that something was very wrong in the world when someone like George Clooney had to plead with the UN  to do something in Darfur.
That night in the youth club, no one was thinking 'not the bloody Holocaust again', that night was emotional, extraordinary and alongside the horrific subject matter was interspersed Zoltan's wit, particularly when talking about himself. This wonderful man, small in stature and physically transformed by TB, stood in front of us and told us his story.

Zoltan wrote the book Final Witness: My Journey from the Holocaust to Ireland, and I would highly recommend picking up a copy.

Zoltan Zinn Collis died on Monday 10th December 2012 aged 72, survived by his wife Joan, sister Edit , brother Robbie, his daughters Siobhán, Caroline, Nichola and Emma, grandchildren Tony, Adam, Molly and Cillian, great-grandchildren Chloe, Tori and C.J. relatives and friends.
He will be sorely missed in our little town.

Finally, definitely, at last
Zoltan Zinn Collis

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