Almost 70 years on, the Nazi death camps still have the power to shock us completely, to stun us into horrified silence. They probably always will, and as Gerry Gregg, director/producer of Close to Evil, told me in an interview, “The day they don’t, humanity is finished.”
The scale of Holocaust deaths makes it almost impossible to comprehend. Six million Jews (along with many more innocents considered “undesirable” by Hitler’s regime) were tortured and killed in concentration camps.
Another mass-murderer, Joseph Stalin, declared, “One death is a tragedy – a million deaths is a statistic.” Untrue and depraved sentiments, of course, but all the same it is difficult to process this catastrophe in general terms.
We perhaps best relate to the Holocaust through individual stories. Close to Evil, aired tonight on RTE1, spins a grim but ultimately inspirational tale of one remarkable man.
Gregg, an Emmy-winning filmmaker, went on the road with Tomi Reichental for two years, in a bid to confront the past. Tomi, a Jew born in Slovakia, was incarcerated in Bergen-Belsen as a child. Liberated by the Allies, he eventually relocated to Dublin, worked, married, became a dad and granddad. Now retired, he lectures kids and adults all over the world, on his experiences in the camps and how we can learn from them.
Two years ago, an appearance on Radio 1 led to a woman contacting Tomi, claiming that her elderly friend, Hilde Lisiewicz, was a camp guard at Bergen-Belsen. Tomi – a sweet, charming but also courageous and resolute man – sets out to find her in Hamburg.
The film cuts between Tomi’s journey – to Germany, Bratislava, Israel and elsewhere – and interviews with others survivors who remembered Hilde, and disputed her lifelong claims that she’d been little more than a cook. We also see footage from a TV interview she gave in 2004, in which she does a decent impression of a wronged, forgetful, innocent old dear…despite having been convicted of murdering three camp inmates.
We won’t spoil the plot for you – this film will no doubt be screened again, by RTE or at festivals – but the path to redemption and reconciliation doesn’t go smoothly. Towards the end, there’s a brilliant coup de theatre where Tomi meets the granddaughter of the Nazi responsible for deporting him to Bergen-Belsen; responsible for the murder of 35 family members. If you don’t choke up at the shot of them walking hand-in-hand, check that you still have a heart.
Close to Evil is a powerful film, incredibly moving, at times almost unbearable. It shows the depths to which mankind can plunge, but also shines a light on our staggering resilience and capacity to forgive. Already a multiple award-winner, it’s a fitting tribute to the memory of millions, and to Tomi Reichental, still alive and kicking.
As Gerry Gregg also said in that interview, “A small man with a big heart.” A mighty man, for sure.
Watch Close to Evil on the RTE iPlayer.
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