Visitors came in droves Stonehill College in late October for a teaching event that explored a concept that is simple in theory, but complex in practice: forgiveness.
Tomi Reichental, a Holocaust survivor and Dublin resident, and the filmmaker Gerry Gregg talked about their experiences in making a documentary called “Close To Evil,” which details Reichental’s attempt to find and meet with former SS officer Hilde Michnia, who served as a guard at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Reichental was imprisoned as a boy.
Gregg told his audience that he jumped at the chance to make the film with Reichental, as it was believed that no Holocaust survivor had ever met with an SS officer outside of a courtroom since the end of World War II.
“He was asking me to make history,” Gregg said. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Reichental told of how the opportunity to try to meet Michnia arose. He said a friend of Michnia’s had come across materials related to the SS in the woman’s house. Michnia apparently had told her friend to get rid of the materials, as she did not want her children to find them.
Later, Michnia’s friend heard Reichental speaking on the Irish radio about his experiences at Bergen-Belsen. Realizing that Michnia was an officer at the same camp where Reichental had been imprisoned, the woman reached out to him, hoping to help set up a time that the survivor could come and speak to the former SS officer.
Michnia ultimately refused to meet with Reichental while denying that she ever played a role in the Holocaust.
“In my naiveté, I thought she was brainwashed and a victim of her upbringing,” Reichental said.
Although Reichental never talked to Michnia, he did meet with Alexandra Sennft, granddaughter of Hans Ludin, the Nazi official responsible for the destruction of the Jewish community in his homeland of Slovakia, including the deaths of 35 members of the Reichental family.
A clip from the documentary of Reichental’s meeting with Sennft, in which the pair pay an emotional visit to Ludin’s grave, was shown at the event. Each confronted different ghosts – for Sennft, it was the stark legacy of her grandfather’s hand in mass murder; for Reichental, it was a test: Could he narrow the psychological and emotional distance between him and one of Ludin’s relatives.
Gregg called the clip “inspirational. It makes Tomi’s journey all the worthwhile,” he said.
Reichental said that going into the production of “Close To Evil,” he had no intention of forgiving Michnia.“The people who can forgive are gone,” he said.
Reichental has no regrets about not meeting Michnia. He said he probably would have embraced her in the heat of the moment, even though she would not admit to the role she played in the Holocaust.
Gregg said although Reichental’s journey did not turn out as he originally planned, he gained a lot from the experience.
“He sets out to build a bridge, and he builds a bridge, but it’s not the bridge he sets out to build,” Gregg said.
Reichental is keen on sharing his experiences and stories with people. He regularly visits secondary schools in Ireland to talk about his time at Bergen-Belsen.
However, it took him a long time to be able to share his story. Although Reichental’s wife, who died 13 years ago, knew he was a Holocaust survivor, he never told her about his time at Bergen-Belsen. “She never knew what I went through,” he said.
Now, his story is well known. He said he has spoken to more than 80,000 students about his imprisonment and his schedule is booked solid with engagements until 2017.
“I thought I owe it to the victims so their memory is not forgotten,” he said.