By Liam Dacko
Students, faculty and visitors came in droves to the Martin Institute Tuesday, Oct. 27, for an event that explored a concept that is simple in theory, but complex in practice: forgiveness.
Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental and filmmaker Gerry Gregg talked about their experience making a documentary film focusing on atonement.
The film, “Close To Evil,” follows Reichental’s attempt to meet former SS officer Hilde Michnia, who served as a guard at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II. Reichental was imprisoned there at age 9.
The event kicked off with a brief introduction by Director of Communications and Media Relations Martin McGovern, who has known Reichental and Gregg for several years.
McGovern said Reichental’s story is an important one, as it is “current” and “centers on the dynamic between victims and perpetrators.”
“Tomi Reichental is not afraid to revisit his traumatic past,” McGovern said.
Gregg and Reichental, who also worked together on the 2011 documentary “Till The Tenth Generation,” took the stage following McGovern’s address and introduced a clip from “Close To Evil.”
During his remarks, Gregg said he jumped at the chance to make the film with Reichental, as no Holocaust survivor has 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 the audience 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 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 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 speak to the former SS officer.
Michnia ultimately refused to meet with Reichental and denied 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 did not talk to Michnia, he did meet with Alexandra Sennft, granddaughter of Hans Ludin. Ludin was a Nazi official responsible for the destruction of the Jewish community in Reichental’s homeland of Slovakia.
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 in the Martin Institute.
Gregg called the clip “inspirational.”
“It makes Tomi’s journey all the worthwhile,” he said.
Provost Joseph Favazza, who specializes in the study of forgiveness, led a conversation with Gregg and Reichental about the film’s themes after the clip was shown.
He first asked the pair about the film’s title.
Gregg said it was “a very deliberate choice” on the production team’s part to use the title “Close To Evil.”
The phrase comes from a line spoken in an early part of the film, during which Reichental meets with the grandson of a man who defended many SS officers in court following the end of World War II.
The man, who communicated several times with Michnia about her involvement with the SS, told the filmmakers he felt a coldness when he read a letter from her in which she denied having Nazi ties. He said the letter made him feel “close to evil”.
After hearing this phrase, Gregg felt the production team had to use it as the film’s title.
“I said, ‘Let’s call it what is was,’” he said.
Reichental said 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 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.
Gregg revealed that everyone who worked on the production “worked for nothing” for two years.
“They all believed that this was a very important story,” he said.
Reichental is keen on sharing his experiences and stories with people. He regularly visits secondary schools in Ireland, where he currently resides, to talk about his time at Bergen-Belsen.
However, it took Reichental 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, Reichental’s story is well-known. He said he has spoken to over 80,000 students about his imprisonment and his schedule is booked solid with speaking engagements until 2017.
“I thought I owe it to the victims so their memory is not forgotten,” he said.
Reichental’s story was also featured in his book, “I Was a Boy in Belsen.” In an interview with The Summit, Reichental said he recently received a letter from Queen Elizabeth II, who read the book after it was gifted to her by someone she knows.
The Queen’s letter is not the only honor Reichental has received in recognition of his work.
Germany awarded Reichental its highest honor, the Order of Merit, in 2012. Additionally, the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland has set up a scholarship in perpetuity to honor Reichental’s work.
In 2014, Reichental was voted International Person of the Year by a panel lead by members of the Irish media and the country’s business community.
Most recently, Reichental attended the IFTA Television Awards, an Irish award ceremony not unlike the Emmys that celebrates achievements in television programming. While there, Reichental accepted the award for “Best Documentary Single” for “Close To Evil.”
Currently, Reichental is working with Gregg to produce another documentary film, which Gregg describes as a “sequel to ‘Close To Evil’.”