Sometimes, the past can come back to haunt you.
A film that premiered last month in Germany has led prosecutors to open an investigation into a 93-year-old woman who worked as a cook at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and is suspected of working as a guard on a death march.
The film, ‘Close to Evil,’ was first shown in Lüneburg, Germany, and tells the story of a survivor, Tomi Reichental, and an SS guard, Hilde Michnia, formerly Lisiewicz.
Ms. Michnia, aged 93, worked in kitchens at the camp. But in the course of the film, it emerges that she also accompanied a death march between two camps on which 1,400 prisoners died.
I wanted to meet for reconciliation. I wanted to give her a chance to say she was sorry and I wanted to shake hands with her. Tomi Reichental, Survivor
Now, that story is unfolding off screen as Hamburg’s public prosecutor is looking into Ms. Michnia’s possible role in the death march between Gross-Rosen and Bergen-Belsen.
On screen, the film follows Tomi Reichental, a Slovakian Jew, who was imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen as a nine year-old. He survived and spent his life telling his story to generations of children in Ireland and around the world.
He heard about Ms. Michnia, a woman who had worked as an SS guard at the camp where he was imprisoned, who was living in Hamburg, after a listener heard him speak on a radio program and put them in touch.
Mr. Reichental was determined to meet Ms. Michnia to find closure on his story. The film tells of his search.
Mr. Reichental traveled across Europe, researching Ms. Michnia’s story.
Mr. Reichental spoke with two soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945. He went to Israel to read Ms. Hilda Michnia’s testimony and her sentence. She had been a cook at Bergen-Belsen, and served a year in prison after the war.
Gerry Gregg, the filmmaker, accompanied Mr. Reichental’s investigation to Scotland, Tel Aviv and Bratislava. “He was in the back of the van with the camera team,” Mr. Gregg said. “He was determined to meet her.”
His research raised new questions. Mr. Reichental met a historian who had interviewed Ms. Michnia, who said her testimony was inconsistent and problematic, that she did not seem to regret her actions.
A Polish survivor described the conditions on a death march, contradicting Ms. Michnia's statement that the prisoners had been well treated.
Mr. Reichental spoke to cousins in Israel about his efforts.
“Why do you want to meet her?” they asked.
I want to shake her hand, he said.
Don’t, unless she’s sorry, his relatives said.
“I wanted to meet for reconciliation,” Mr. Reichental told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “I wanted to give her a chance to say she was sorry and I wanted to shake hands with her.”
Video: Close to Evil trailer.
Mr. Reichental corresponded with Ms. Michnia’s daughter who said she was sorry that her mother had been an SS guard and that she would like to meet with Mr. Reichental.
But when they traveled to Hamburg, she didn’t show up at a meeting that had been arranged.
The journalist who had put the two in touch called her.
“I don’t want to talk to him. Nor do my children,” Ms. Michnia said.
The many questions posed by the film brought difficulties.
“At film school, they say not to do that,” said Gerry Gregg, referring to his open-ended research methods.
He said it was difficult to get funding. “They always tell you, don’t take a trip up the Amazon in a canoe if you don’t know where you’re going,” he said in an interview.
When Ms. Michnia refused to meet, Mr. Gregg said he worried how Mr. Reichental would handle the disappointment.
“After all, he’s 80. But he’s the healthiest Holocaust survivor there is. And he has such a big heart,” Mr. Gregg said.
Days later, someone got in touch, keen to meet Mr. Reichental. Alexandra Senfft had heard about his story and his search through a network of people interested in history who met to talk about their families’ histories.
Hanns Elard Ludin, Ms. Senfft's grandfather, had been Hitler's Slovakia envoy responsible for deporting 65,000 Slovakian Jews. A photograph showed him with Hitler, and Ms. Senfft’s mother as a child.
“When we started this story, we didn’t expect to end up in Nazi high command,” Mr. Gregg said. “But then, we finally knew we had a film with an ending.”
Mr. Reichental and Ms. Senfft met in Bratislava and talked about the past, about the family he had lost and about her family’s response to the legacy of the past. “She is a very courageous lady,” Mr. Reichental said.
They stayed in touch. “It’s very sad that it ruptured her family when she came out with this,” he said. “But we’re like family now.”
At its European premiere last month in Lüneburg, Germany, viewers applauded the film.
“I think it’s still really important to talk about these issues,” said one member of the audience. “In Germany we are still struggling and all too often, there’s philo-Semitism or anti-Semitism. We still have a long way to go before we find a way to deal with these things.”
Carsten Rinio, a spokesman for Hamburg's public prosecutor, confirmed Monday his office had begun an investigation into Hilde Michnia after a private individual had called for an investigation under German law.
Mr. Reichental said his aim had not been to reopen an investigation into Ms. Michnia’s past.
On Sunday, Ms. Michnia told Welt am Sonntag newspaper that she had just worked in the kitchen, although witnesses said they had seen her beat inmates to death.
“I can’t comment on what happens to her,” Mr. Reichental said. “It’s a moral victory, I suppose, that she’s reminded of what she did after all these years. It’s up to Germany, that’s how the law works, to investigate people’s crimes.”
“What I wanted was to meet with her. It would have been good for me – and perhaps for her.”
If they had met, it would have been a historic occasion, he said. “There’s no record of a survivor and perpetrator meeting privately – of course they met during the trials,” he said.
“Not meeting her was not my biggest disappointment. What’s disappointing is that after all these years, she’s still stuck in 1945, that’s the sad thing,” Mr. Reichental said. “I just expected that she would be a different woman today after 70 years and she would understand what she had done and have the courage to say sorry to me.”
He said he had heard of discussion on Facebook where many people showed sympathy with Ms. Michnia and the new investigation.
“I blame the German government, there’s still a big job to do in explaining this was wrong,” he said.
Mr. Reichental said what matters is for his story to reach as many people as possible, of the 35 members of his family he lost and the millions who died.
“These days, in a world where bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism are all on the rise, it’s more important than ever to learn from the past so they don’t repeat it,” he said.
Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]