Saturday 18 November 2017

The encounter that transcended years of horror

A moving meeting between a survivor of Bergen-Belsen and the descendant of a war criminal who had a hand in the deaths of his family has been caught on TV by Gerry Gregg

Tomi Reichental and Alexandra Senfft on location in Slovakia
Tomi Reichental and Alexandra Senfft on location in Slovakia

Gerry Gregg

Last night on RTE's 
Saturday Night with Miriam Show, the Irish people got a glimpse of "a mitzveh", the Yiddish phrase that refers to something good that leads to something better. In a week overshadowed by war and barbaric acts of slaughter, we witnessed a remarkable act of reconciliation. A survivor of genocide embraced the granddaughter of a man who was instrumental in the liquidation of thousands of Slovak Jews, including his own kith and kin.

Last Christmas, Alexandra Senfft spoke to me for the first time. She got in touch to volunteer for a mission few people anywhere would have the guts to undertake. Alexandra agreed to travel across Europe to meet a man who now lives in Dublin but who once upon a time called the village of Merasice in what was once Czechoslovakia his home. Tomi Reichental is a survivor of the Shoah, or Holocaust. In some respects he is a man Alexandra's restless soul was destined to encounter.

On September 1, 1939, Tomi was a five-year-old kid playing on his family farm. Neither he nor his parents and millions of other European Jews could have imagined what was coming down the tracks. But Hanns Ludin knew what was in store for them. Alexandra's grandfather, Ludin was part of Hitler's inner circle and he played a leading role in the horrors that followed.

Ludin was the Third Reich's man in Bratislava. His job was do his bit for the "Final Solution". For young Tomi Reichental, life would never be the same again. As a Jew, he was first excluded from Slovak society, then he was expelled and finally in Bergen-Belsen he faced extermination.

Tomi made it. But 35 members of his family did not. Ludin had a direct hand in their murders and for that, he paid the ultimate penalty on a gallows in a prison yard in Bratislava in 1947.

In our documentary film Close to Evil, Alexandra travels from Bavaria to Bratislava to meet for the first time a victim of her grandfather's ideological zeal.

Few would have put themselves to so much trouble. But Alexandra didn't shirk an encounter fraught with emotion and profound historic meaning. In Tomi she met a modest little man with a big, generous heart, just as sensitive to her vulnerabilities as she was to his ghosts from the past.

Mutual apprehensions melted away on the wintry streets of the Slovak capital. Tomi, to Alexandra's relief, was not somebody interested in accusations or confrontations but a kindred spirit keen to pass on to another generation his memories of the Holocaust and moved to encourage her battle against the secrets and lies that still haunt so many families with a Nazi past in Germany.

That uplifting gesture was the culmination of a long journey I have been on with Tomi. A journey that began and ended in RTE.

Two years ago, Tomi was on RTE Radio speaking about the hell he lived through in Bergen-Belsen. That interview was the catalyst for a remarkable quest that took Tomi back to some painful places and presented him with troublesome dilemmas. Tomi discovered that one of his former captors, an SS woman called Hilde Lisiewicz, was alive and well and living in Hamburg.

As an advocate of reconciliation, Tomi was willing to stretch out his hand to a person who once "proudly" wore the uniform of the SS. The SS were the mechanics of the Holocaust. They did the dirty work, beating, tormenting, slave-driving and ultimately killing Jews. Tomi asked me, cameraman Seamus Deasy and sound recordist Kieran Horgan to come with him on what was to prove an epic journey.

For two years, with the enthusiastic support of our executive producer Colm O'Callaghan, we have been on the road following a story
that took us back in time and all across Europe and back and forth to Israel. Along the way, we learnt that Hilde Lisiewicz is not only a devout Catholic who helped out in the local church cleaning and pressing the priest's vestments, she is also a convicted war criminal.

In a Greek cafe in Tel Aviv we spoke to the family of a woman who testified at Hilde's trial in Luneburg in the autumn of 1945. Dora Almaleh swore that Hilde beat two starving men to death after they were caught stealing turnips to eat raw. The military court believed Dora and sent Hilde down.

Nevertheless, Tomi persisted with Hilde. Publicly she is an unrepentant perpetrator, but privately we know she has nightmares. In January this year, Tomi held out his hand again. Lisiewicz spurned him again but all was not lost.

In a place called Neuengamme, near Hamburg, a small group of descendants of Nazis meet twice a year to reflect on the legacy of their fathers. One of that group made contact. It was Alexandra Senfft telling me she wanted, no, she needed to meet Tomi. I knew then all our efforts were about to be rewarded. I knew we were about to record history.

'Close to Evil' will be screened on Monday, 
September 1 on RTE 1 
at 9.35pm

Sunday Independent

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