Wednesday, 11 April 2007

The boy under the chestnut tree

George Strunz (Newtown School, Class of 1956) writes:

It was, I think in 1950 or 1951, on the gravel under “the brothers”, the ancient horse-chestnut trees then in front of Newtown School, that I first met Zoltan and Edit Zynn (subsequently Zinn-Collis) among the new boarders entering the school that autumn. Both were shorter in stature than the rest of us and their hair and complexions were dark: they were good-looking children with ready and engaging smiles and Zoltan wore wire-rimmed glasses. He had a noticeable bump on the upper part of his back. Word had spread among the Newtown community that these children had survived terrible hardships in concentration camp and, without being spoiled, should be treated with due consideration. Although we knew that they had lost their entire family, few among the privileged and relatively innocent Newtown student body could imagine the full horror of these terrible hardships.

Edit and I were in the same class and Zoltan, being younger, was a form or two behind. Throughout their time as members of the Newtown community, it was tacitly understood that one did not discuss their earlier history with Edit and Zoltan. Indeed, with their cheerful dispositions and wholehearted participation in school activities, most of us quickly forgot about their different background, although the knowledge did persist in my subconscious mind.

I had not, until last year, seen or been in contact with either Edit or Zoltan since school-days. Now, after briefly meeting with Edit again and having read the autobiography, which Zoltan has finally been able to bring himself to write more than half a century later, I feel that I have at last come to know these remarkable “ordinary” people!

The beginning of the book recalls the experiences of the author and his sister as small children in the brutal hell that was the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, during what was arguably the darkest period in the history of humanity. Their survival was due to the intervention of a number of caring people and the resilience they had as young children “who were still able to play among the rotting corpses”. With its horrific beginning, the story of their subsequent journey in Ireland towards recovery and a normal life in the care of a remarkable Irish physician is an inspiring testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

The first section of the book makes for very uncomfortable and distressing reading. Zoltan was the third of four children born in the foothills of the High Tatra to a Jewish Slovak father and a Protestant mother of Hungarian origin. When he was about four, his father had to go into hiding from the Nazis and the children saw nothing of him for months. His mother, warned by the authorities to dissociate herself from her husband nevertheless remained steadfast and loyal to him, with the result that when he was subsequently arrested, the entire family was sent to concentration camp. All perished there except Zoltan and his elder sister Edit.

The author’s childhood recollections of the appalling, brutally inhuman conditions under which his family and other victims of Nazism suffered while being transported to Belsen and during their day-to-day existence in the camp are chilling. The images left with the reader are nightmarish. In the midst of all the barely describable brutality, Part 1 nevertheless also has some uplifting moments, such as the nurturing of the children by Polish inmate, Luba Trysznska (“the angel of Belsen”) and her Slovak companion Hermina Krantz as well as some surreptitious kindness shown by one of the female guards.

The turning point comes when Zoltan, described by Dutch Red Cross worker Han Hogerzeil, as an “enchanting scrap of humanity”, and his sister Edit are rescued from the freshly liberated camp by the indomitable Dr Bob Collis. Thereafter begins, in Ireland, their difficult but inspiring road to recovery, initially in the care of Dr Collis, who became father as well as physician to the children. A description of their healing and acquiring the ability to deal with their physical and emotional scars comprises the middle section of the book.

Incarceration at Belsen left the 5-year-old Zoltan with tuberculosis in his spine, a condition responsible for the spinal deformity that he has lived with ever since. It was fortunate for Zoltan that the redoubtable Dr Collis was at the forefront in his field of paediatrics at the time and the doctor’s influential contacts included some of the world’s leading physicians and scientists. Thus, when Zoltan, at the age of six or seven, seemed about to succumb to tuberculosis meningitis, Collis was able to obtain directly from Sir Alexander Flemming the Nobel Lauriate’s entire supply of the newly discovered antibiotic streptomycin, the experimental administration of which undoubtedly saved his life.

Zoltan and Edit were adopted and grew up as members of the Collis household which initially included the doctor, his first wife Phyllis and their sons, Dermot and Robby. The book contains revealing glimpses of their life in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square and at the family’s beloved holiday home, Bo, in the Wicklow mountains. Han Hogerzeil, the nurse who had worked alongside Dr Collis in Belsen so many years before and remained a close friend, later became the second Mrs. Collis.

The major part of the children’s academic education was received as boarders at Newtown and the school has reason to be proud that Zoltan was very happy there and credits it with having more influence on him than any other place. “Thanks to the influence of Newtown School,” he writes, “I have accepted what happened to me and moved on with my life. That is no small achievement.”

Indeed, he did move on with his life and had a successful career in hotel management and as a chef. He married Joan, a Catholic; they had four daughters and have enjoyed a happy life as a loving close-knit family.

Those who lived in Ireland during the 1950’s and 60’s will remember that relations between Roman Catholics and the small non-Catholic minority were cordial and reasonably tolerant at that time, but that tradition and the Ne Temere decree placed almost insurmountable barriers in the way of mixed marriages. I have heard that Zoltan and Joan had to overcome considerable obstacles when they decided to marry. It seems a pity that these difficulties are scarcely alluded to in the book: such an account would have given an interesting insight into their strength and determination and into the social history of the time. This is, however a minor criticism of a book which makes compelling and uplifting reading.

Besides telling Zoltan’s remarkable life story, it gives a snapshot of the personality of the legendary Dr Bob Collis, a larger-than-life figure with enormous energy and a powerful will and intellect, who nevertheless was not without some human frailties.

As he has come to terms with his past, Zoltan has become active in the important field of education about the Holocaust, giving talks in Irish schools and community forums and, not least, by the creation of this autobiography.

The book is written in a straightforward, modest, informal manner and is devoid of self-pity. The author’s own indomitable personality shines through and there is no shortage of humour. He describes for instance the corset-like contraption that was designed for him as a youngster to hold his spine rigidly in position: when drawn into small-boy fist-fights he would “go in backwards” and the little fists of his opponents would come into sharp contact with the hard canvas, belts and buckles of the corset! Another anecdote tells of an explosion within a hotel kitchen gas oven when he, the head chef, suffered broken glasses and some minor injuries. A waiter, standing safely behind him observed “Jaysus, Collis, if the f..…ing Nazis didn’t get you, we will!”

These examples suggest that, notwithstanding the serious health issues that increasingly beset him as he gets older, this unique “Slovak Irish Paddy” retains the twinkle in his eyes that we remember from his Newtown days. This is a very important story, both as a historical record and as the autobiography of a remarkable and courageous individual: it deserves to be widely read. Perhaps such accounts may one day touch human consciences to the point where they prevent the recurrence of the kind of brutality he endured which, alas, we still see today in places like Dafur.


Anonymous said...

Zoltan is an inspiration. loved his book.

Jennifer said...

I've seen and heard Zoltan pop up on the media every now and then and I think that he is a marvellous man. There are people out there who go through years of psychotherapy because of minor issues they carry with them.

Zoltan shows us that we just need to get on with the life we are given. He's been to hell and back and I hope he's enjoying a peaceful and happy life now.