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Friday 15 December 2017

Gerry Gregg: How my long battle to make a film led to a new probe into this Nazi jailer

Hilda Michnia
Hilda Michnia
Bergen Belson concentration camp

This week the Berlin Film Festival opens in the German capital.

It claims to feature the best of European cinema and documentary film-making. A film I directed, Close to Evil, will not be showing. But it is a film that everyone is talking about in Germany this week.

Making a feature length documentary is normally a massive undertaking. To set out with a Holocaust survivor in a bid to trace and meet up with one of his SS jailers looked at times like a mission impossible.

In late 2012 we started production on Close to Evil. Our journey would take over two years to complete and would lead us all over Ireland, Israel and twice across Europe.

The team, myself, Seamus Deasy on Camera, his son Shane, sound recordist Kieran Horgan, and Belsen survivor Tomi Reichental worked for two years without pay. Dean Valentine our composer wrote a haunting score also on the basis of faith and charity.

We had few champions. Julian Vignoles the veteran RTE commissioning editor started the ball rolling. Then he retired. We shot and cut a trailer. Then we ran aground.

A year ago RTE Executive Producer Colm O'Callaghan spotted me in the RTE canteen clearly looking down in the dumps.

I explained my predicament. He found the funds to put us back in the game. So did Paul Dolan and Brian Nolan at the FAS Media Centre in Tralee.

They gave us two HD cameras and editing provided we mentored student Dylan Knapp, who also happened to have German. It was an aptitude that came in very handy on location.

We clocked up thousands of kilometres as we tried to put together a story that began as a mission of reconciliation but ended this week with a day of reckoning.

Because this week former SS woman and convicted war criminal Hilde Michnia, who featured in our film, faces investigation in Germany for her alleged role in forcing 2,000 Jewish women slave labourers to abandon Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Poland and set out on a trek through hell to a town called Gruben on the Oder river.

We know from the testimonies of those who made it through the seven days and nights that three out of every four women perished. They died from hunger, disease and freezing temperatures but most of them left this world from gunshot wounds - slaughtered for failing to keep up. We went looking for one of the handful of survivors.

Remarkably Hilde Michnia, in an unseen 2004 interview, had admitted that she had been a guard at Gross-Rosen and that she had taken part in the retreat from the camp as the Red Army advanced in January 1945.

She also claimed that the prisoners were well-treated and fed.

belsen

We made inquiries to the Simon Weisenthal Centre in Jerusalem. For months we made no progress. Then we located Luba Varshawska, an 88-year-old Polish Jew who was on that march. She remembers being terrified to stop or rest in case she'd end up gunned down in the snow.

On January 25 last we showed Close to Evil to an audience of Germans in Luneburg. This was the city where 70 years ago Hilde Michnia was convicted of being a guard at Belsen camp (left).

The audience was shocked at Hilde's attempt to re-write history. They gasped and shouted at the screen when she claimed that the corpses of the dead of Belsen were brought there by train.

After the screening, Hans-Jurgen Brennecke, a man whose father was also a Nazi criminal and who speaks about him honestly in our film, sent a letter to the German State prosecutors outlining why Hilde Michnia still has a case to answer.

That letter has now had a response and Michnia is being investigated.

The road to the Luneburg was long and bumpy. There is another act to be played out now. We may have a sequel.

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