After RTE aired an award-winning documentary about the Holocaust, 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 Timessaid.
“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.
Hilde Michnia is suspected of forcing prisoners on an evacuation march in 1945
Up six steps from the front door, Hilde Michnia’s brown apartment door is decorated with a garland of white polyester roses. A black strip, reading “20*C+M+B+15” in honour of the Three Wise Men announces this Hamburg apartment is the home of a Christian woman. The 20 and 15 represent the year; and C, M and B stand for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar or, by some accounts, Christus mansionem benedicat (May Christ bless the house).
Michnia is on the phone when I arrive, an unremarkable call to a friend dominated by talks of aches and pains, this time in her back. Nothing unusual for an elderly woman, not even for a former SS concentration camp guard.
Now, days after her 93rd birthday, public prosecutors in Hamburg are investigating Michnia’s service at Bergen-Belsen and Gross-Rosen concentration camps, in particular her alleged involvement in a death march from the latter in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“Not Bergen-Belsen again, it’s 70 years ago,” she groans. “They should leave small fry like me alone.”
But “they” aren’t leaving her alone. Hilde Michnia, born Lisiewicz, is now file number 7305 Js 1/5 with the Hamburg state prosecutor. And it was Michnia herself who set events in motion, confiding to an Irish neighbour a few years ago that she had bad dreams about her time working in Bergen-Belsen.
Machinery of death
The camp was a crucial cog in the Nazi machinery of death – at least 52,000 people, including Anne Frank, died in the camp near Hanover. They were largely Jews and many died from disease. Many more prisoners were funnelled through it to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Like other camps, Bergen-Belsen worked by dehumanising its prisoners – the task of SS guards like the 20-something Hilde Lisiewicz.
Slovak-born Tomi Reichental, a Bergen-Belsen survivor, first heard her name after a 2012 radio appearance. He has lived in Ireland since 1977, is active in Holocaust educational work, and has worked regularly with documentary maker Gerry Gregg.
A woman who contacted him in 2012 said she used to live in Hamburg, where a neighbour admitted she was a former guard in the camp where he was once imprisoned.
Gregg’s film, Close To Evil, broadcast by RTÉ last year, showed Reichental contacting people connected to or responsible for the Holocaust. But when the Bergen-Belsen survivor went to visit the former camp guard in Hamburg, he was told she was sick.
It’s not the first time Michnia has been confronted with her Nazi past. In 1945, British occupying forces in northern Germany tried 45 concentration camp guards – including Hilde Lisiewicz.
During the Bergen-Belsen trials, a former prisoner testified that Lisiewicz beat two men with a stick and kicked them with her boots because they had taken two turnips from the camp kitchen. The witness, Dora Almaleh, told the court she remembered the woman guard shouting: “Stop crying or I’ll finish you off.”
Hilde Lisiewicz denied having a stick or kicking prisoners but was found guilty and imprisoned for a year; 11 other camp guards were executed. Seven decades on, Michnia seems to have served in a very different camp to the one Tomi Reichental remembers.
She doesn’t remember seeing piles of dead bodies – she says she worked in another part of the camp – nor can she remember thousands of prisoners wasting away from hunger or disease. Her version of Bergen-Belsen’s history so enraged German historian Hans-Jürgen Brennecke that he filed a criminal complaint against the former camp guard.
“She lies every time she opens her mouth,” said Brennecke, a historian from Lüneburg who recently organised a showing of Close to Evil in his local cinema – its premiere in Germany.
Crucial to his complaint is video testimony Michnia gave to the Bergen-Belsen camp memorial, admitting she led a march in January 1945. Now she has a different recollection.
“I worked in the camp kitchen,” she told The Irish Times.
Brennecke dismisses her claims: “She says she worked in the camp kitchen for 2½ months but she was an SS camp guard for five years.”
He is confident Hilde Michnia’s contradictory testimony is basis enough for his criminal complaint on two counts: accessory to mass murder on a 1945 death march in which an estimated 1,400 women died; and for lying about prisoner deaths at Bergen-Belsen.
Michnia believes she was punished enough with her year in prison, after which she married and had three children.
Widowed for 44 years, she is a devout Catholic and a regular Mass-goer, of late with a roller walker that stands folded in the hallway.
Focus on Nazi-era
Michnia says she is unconcerned by the investigation, even considering German prosecutors’ recent belated interest in Nazi-era “small fry”, as she describes herself.
In April, 93-year-old Oskar Gröning, dubbed the “accountant of Auschwitz”, will go on trial accused of being an accessory to 300,000 murders.
If Hamburg state prosecutors, currently examining documentation from Brennecke, decide to proceed with the case, Michnia will be next. She says her daughter, a lawyer, has taken over the case on her behalf.
“I’ve told my story, I suffered enough back in the Hitler times,” she said.
What are her feelings towards Bergen-Belsen survivor Tomi Reichental and the Irish documentary that brought her past back to the present?
In a split second, she says: “They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Tomi Reichental’s story Close to Evil has prompted German federal prosecutors to question 93-year-old Hilde Michnia about her alleged role as an SS guard at Belsen. She is also suspected of forcing prisoners on an evacuation/death march in 1945 on which 1,400 women perished.
But Reichental, who lives in Dublin, told the Guardian this week that he took part in the Irish documentary directed by Gerry Gregg principally to seek out some sign of atonement from Michnia. Reichental said he even wanted to shake the hand of his jailer in the Nazi camp if they ever met.
In the film Reichental, Gregg and a German television producer contact Michnia at her home near Hamburg but she declines to meet the former Jewish child prisoner who was sent to Belsen at the age of nine.
“In my film Close to Evil I reached out to reconcile with one of my jailers in Bergen-Belsen. I started out being open to the idea that the SS guard Hilde Lisiewitz (later Michnia) must be a different person to the young woman that was convicted of war crimes in 1945.
“I was prepared to meet Hilde, who had been a perpetrator and who I thought had seen the light and changed her values. I was prepared to reconcile with her and shake her hand, because in my naive thinking she was also a victim of her own time.
“That I did not meet Hilde was not the big letdown but rather the fact that Hilde is still stuck in the 1940s, this is what disappointed me.”
He continued: “As Jews we have a tradition of atonement, it is a rich and noble concept. I am not a rabbi, nor am I a very observant Jew. But I am a product of my background and for me I understand atonement as a person’s effort to acquire a new heart and a new spirit.
“Atonement as I see it is about repentance and reparation. Hilde had no interest in any of this. By her action of not meeting, in denying the murder of inmates in Bergen-Belsen, she has chosen to justify and distort her own role during the Third Reich.”
Hamburg social worker Hans-Jürgen Brennecke confirmed that he had filed charges through the federal prosecutor after seeing the RTÉ documentary in the German city of Luneberg in January this year. He approached Gregg at the screening of the film in a local cinema as part of events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.
“After the screening, Hans-Jürgen 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,” Gregg said.
A Slovakian Jew, Tomi Reichental lost 35 members of his wider family circle in Nazi concentration camps. He was one of the minority of Slovak Jews to survive the Shoah: 80% of the country’s Jewish population was murdered during the second world war.
However, while filming across Germany and Slovakia relatives of senior SS officers – including those of Hans Ludin, one of Hitler’s inner circle and a convicted war criminal – contacted Reichental. Ludin signed off the deportations of Slovakia’s Jews, including Reichental’s family.
As the documentary progressed last year Reichental developed a warm friendship with Ludin’s granddaughter Alexandra Senfft. She belongs to a group in Germany of descendants of SS and senior Nazi functionaries who are seeking to come to terms with the wartime sins of their fathers and grandfathers. They had learned in the German media in 2014 that Reichental was travelling across Europe filming about his life’s journey from Belsen to the leafy suburbs of south Dublin.
“Embracing Alexandra Senfft, the granddaughter of the Nazi war criminal Hans Ludin who was implicated in sending 35 members of my family to death in the gas chambers, was not an act of forgiveness. Instead it was an embrace of a ‘kindred spirit’. Alexandra sought me out in order to demonstrate our common humanity. She wants to proclaim the truth and urge people not to forget. My mission is the same, we must remember. She now has also met my brother, she is now a good friend and a new member of our larger family.”
In the film there is a poignant scene where Reichental agrees to go with Senftt to the spot in Bratislava where her grandfather was buried after being hanged for war crimes in December 1947.
The full documentary can be seen at Close to Evil.