herald

Monday 15 September 2014

How the irishman who survived at Belsen went to meet his jailer ...

Tomi Reichental is an intrepid 77-year-old Irishman. For several years he has been giving talks twice a week to schools all over Ireland about the vanished world he once belonged to.

A citizen of this Republic since 1977, Tomi was born in what was then Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1935. The Reichentals were a respected and prosperous family. But Tomi had a big problem. The Reichentals were Jews and Czechoslovakia was next door to Germany. Hitler had plans for his country and for his people.

By March 1939, Czechoslovakia was "the faraway country" Neville Chamberlain sold down the river in order to appease the murderous aggression of the Fuhrer. The Reichentals found themselves marooned in the puppet Slovak regime Hitler installed in Bratislava. Slovak Jews overnight became outcasts. Before long they were being hunted down by Slovak Fascists.

Five years later most Slovak Jews were dead. Tomi's extended family was decimated. Some were gassed in Auschwitz. Others were worked to death in Buchenwald. One uncle was guillotined in a German prison for his role in the Czech Resistance. All told, 35 relatives were annihilated in the Holocaust.

Horrors

Arrested and attacked by the Gestapo in a shop in Bratislava, Tomi as a nine-year-old was shipped off to Belsen Concentration Camp with his older brother Miki and his mother. When they were freed by the British army in April 1945, Tomi was skin and bone and clinging to life. As a 10-year-old boy he "had seen all there was to see" about the horrors of war.

I made a film with Tomi four years ago, Till The Tenth Generation, which told his story.

A year ago Tomi appeared on RTE radio to recount his memories of the Shoah and a woman in Galway was listening. She made contact with Tomi and presented him with a remarkable offer. The Galway woman had worked in Germany for many years. She had made friends with an old woman who was very active in the Catholic Church in her parish on the outskirts of Hamburg.

This elderly lady had confessed to the Galway woman that she was once in the SS. She had been a Guard in Bergen Belsen. Would Tomi, the Galway listener inquired, be interested in meeting one of his SS jailers?

That contact prompted Tomi to embark on a remarkable journey. It also led me to make a documentary sequel to our original film. For the past six months the award-winning film-makers Seamus Deasy and Kieran Horgan have joined me with Tomi Reichental on his quest to meet this woman from the darkest days of his childhood.

It's a journey that started in the West of Ireland and has taken us to Israel, England, Scotland, Holland and Germany.

This time last year Mathilde Michnia was celebrating her 90th birthday in a Greek restaurant in a Hamburg suburb. She was pictured in a local newspaper smiling happily in the company of her two daughters and her only son. What the article didn't refer to was the dark secret at the heart of Frau Michnia's life.

Once the young Hilde was proud to wear the uniform of the Waffen SS. She had followed orders and helped keep Tomi and thousands like him in captivity when she brutally "guarded" starving prisoners in Bergen Belsen.

On our odyssey we learnt that there was a lot more to Hilde Lisiewitz, as she was called in ranks of the SS. Along with 44 other guards she stood trial for war crimes at Luneburg in September 1945. The British Military Court heard and believed the testimony of prisoners who said they saw Hilde regularly beat inmates with a truncheon and in one case batter two famished men to death for stealing turnips.

Tolerance

Despite her murder conviction, Tomi was prepared to meet Hilde Michnia. Maybe she wanted a time and a place to say sorry and tell Tomi she repudiated the evil she had been part of.

It was not to be. There was an encounter in Hamburg but not the one we imagined. Hilde, we were told, was too ill to see Tomi. We found that was untrue. Instead we discovered an unrepentant woman who denies her past misdemeanours and has not come clean with her family and neighbours.

But all is not lost. Before Christmas Tomi got a letter. It contained a bolt from the blue, from Berlin.

Next week in Dublin the German Ambassador Dr Eckard Lubkemeier will bestow on Tomi Reichental the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Nearly 70 years after he survived the terrors of the Nazis, the President of Germany, Joachim Gauck has singled Tomi out for this highly prestigious award.

Tomi's tireless efforts to promote tolerance and oppose racism in all its forms have not gone unnoticed.

We will be there to record this historic moment. It will be a good day for Germany, and for Ireland. We believe it will be a fitting finish to our film too.

Gerry Gregg is an Emmy Award-winning producer/director

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