After RTE aired an award-winning documentary about the Holocaust in the fall of 2014, German authorities began an investigation into 93-year-old woman Hilde Michnia, a former Nazi SS guard whose murderous admissions had been recorded on tape.
Michnia was involved in forcing prisoners into a “death march” in which 1,400 people died – those who could not keep up in the march were killed on the spot. Michnia also beat to death two Jewish prisoners who stole turnips from a kitchen – she was put on trial by British occupying forces and served one year in prison in 1945.
“Close to Evil” is a documentary about Holocaust survivor and Irish citizen Tomi Reichental, who was imprisoned in German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen where Michnia had been a guard. She was also a guard at concentration camp Gross-Rosen.
Reichental lost over 35 family members in the Holocaust, and he saw his grandmother Rosalie’s body dumped upon piles of rotting corpses in the spring of 1945 after she died of starvation, the Irish Times said.
“I was one of her prisoners,” he told RTE, speaking about Hilde Michnia after finding out she was still alive. Reichental attempted to conduct an interview with her and she declined.
Reichental was born in Slovakia in 1935 – after he was liberated he moved to Ireland and became an Irish citizen in 1977. He settled in Dublin in the 1960s, where he raised a family and ran a business. He now lectures schoolchildren and adults all over the world on his Holocaust experiences and what we can learn from them.
German social worker Hans-Jürgen Brennecke recently filed the charges against Michnia after screening ‘Close to Evil’ in Germany last week – RTE had sourced a recording in which Michnia admitted to taking part in the camp’s 1945 evacuation. Prosecutors in Hamburg have since embarked on an investigation.
The Emmy-award winning documentary director Gerry Gregg said there were "gasps of horror" following her admissions at the screening, which prompted Brennecke to lodge a complaint with German authorities.
“There should be some consequences if such important information is in [the documentary],” Brennecke said.
"We managed to secure, through a source, a tape recording of her making these assertions. That was the key piece of evidence and made the film unique.
"Because she put herself on the march, and because she said nothing basically untoward had happened, once the film was shown in Germany, [there were] gasps of horror,” Gregg said.
In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt last weekend, Michnia insisted she was not involved in any atrocities and only worked in kitchens at the camps. She also said that her part in the death march involved making hot chocolate for the prisoners.
Gregg told the Irish Independent: "It was clear from the assertions that she made in the film that she put herself on a death march.
"And then she made the extraordinary claim that while on this death march she was making hot chocolate and soup for the prisoners. That just did not chime with any of the testimonies of survivors on other death marches,” he said.
"It was clear that any of those on the march who couldn't keep up were murdered."
After an interview with Reichental on the RTÉ Radio 1’s “The God Slot” in 2012, a Galway listener had contacted RTÉ with information about Hilde Michnia.
“The listener had worked in Germany and got close to an elderly woman who was active in her Hamburg parish,” Gregg told the Irish Times.
“The German woman had confided in her about her past and her nightmares. She was once an SS guard in Belsen. The listener wondered would Reichental like to meet her? Hesitantly, he agreed.”
Gregg and Reichental had previously worked on the documentary “I Was a Boy In Belsen,” which was broadcast on RTÉ in 2009.
“That invitation prompted us to make a second film,” he explained. “'Close to Evil' will tell the story of what Reichental discovered about his former jailer, Hilde Michnia,” who is now a being investigated as a murderer.
The documentary was co-produced by Sunday Independent journalist Eoghan Harris.
* Originally published in February 2015.