Monday 18 December 2017

Sometimes, we can pierce the shadows of the past

Wartime wounds were reopened in a pretty German town when an Irish-made film was shown. Gerry Gregg, one of the men behind the documentary, reports on the repercussions

Tomi Reichental, Belsen survivor. Photo: Tony Gavin
Hilde Michnia

Gerry Gregg

Luneburg is a picturesque town in Northern Germany. It's about an hour's drive south of Hamburg. In medieval times it was once an important trading centre. The legacy of Luneburg's former prosperity is evident in the stout but slightly listing Hanseatic architecture at the heart of the old town. Luneburg has withstood wars and upheavals for over a thousand years. This is a town that was built and got rich on salt.

In the Europe of the Middle Ages, salt was essential for preserving meat and fish. It was as valuable as gold. Salt is also a cleansing agent. And now old wounds have been reopened in Luneburg.

Luneburg is also famous, although you wouldn't know it, as you stroll across its cobble stone streets, for being the site of the first war crimes trial after the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. Ulsterman Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery took the surrender of Hitler's army in Northern Germany in the town.

Monty also set up his HQ for the British Zone of Occupation in Luneburg. It was at his desk there in November 1945 that Montgomery personally signed the death warrants for the SS guards captured by the British Army after the liberation of the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Eleven were sentenced to hang by the British military court in the courthouse across the street from his office.That historic landmark has been demolished. An ugly, nondescript furniture store stands on the site. An obscurely placed, small, defaced fibre- glass plaque is the only clue to the drama that unfolded here 70 years ago.

One of the SS guards convicted under the indictment of beating and murdering prisoners at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was Hilde Lisiewicz. She served one year in prison. Last week, 70 years later, Hilde Michnia as she is now, is back in the frame. This time she faces investigation for her possible role in another war crime.

The scene of that crime is in Poland. The Gross Rosen to Gruben Death March of January 1945 took place after the SS forcibly moved thousands of female slave labourers west as the Red Army advanced into the heart of Nazi Germany.

Michnia admitted in Close to Evil, the film I made with Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental and broadcast on RTE last September, that she was a guard at Gross Rosen. She volunteered in interviews conducted 10 years ago, but never seen in public, the incriminating information that she was part of the SS contingent that evacuated the prisoners to the town of Gruben on the river Oder.

Today, the town on the Oder marks the revised border between Poland and Germany. It took the SS and their captives seven long, cold days and freezing nights to get to Gruben. Michnia remarkably claimed in Close to Evil that the women prisoners were well treated on the gruelling marathon trek in the jaws of winter.

Michnia even suggested that whatever food the SS had, they shared with the Jewish slaves they were holding onto, till the bitter end. One survivor we tracked down in Israel had a different memory. Luba Varshavska (88) told us that if you could not keep up with the pace of the march, you were summarily shot by the SS. She also recalled the relief of sleeping with cattle in barns at night. The beasts were warm. They kept her alive.

Sunday, January 25 was Holocaust Memorial Day across Europe. It was a fitting occasion to screen Close to Evil for the first time outside Ireland. The venue was the Scala cinema in Luneburg. About 70 people attended. They were students, teachers, trade unionists, some journalists and a retired German Army officer. Some locals who took part in the film were also there. They kindly invited me and our RTE executive producer Colm O'Callaghan to introduce the film, and take questions afterwards.

Michnia's defiant testimony about being proud to wear the SS uniform and her protestations of innocence stunned the audience. There were gasps, and groans of anger as Hilde denied any wrong-doing and claimed she was a victim of victors' justice.

At the end, after the credits rolled, there was silence, then applause, and then sustained applause. The film had hit these Germans in the solar plexus. The cinema manager invited the audience to take a coffee break before any discussion.

She said they all needed time to collect their thoughts and emotions.

Hans-Jurgen Brennecke was the driving force behind the screening. A tall, erect 70- year-old, he has a voice like Yul Brynner and a driving purpose in life. His mission is history. He works with a group in Luneburg to encourage and sometimes provoke fellow Germans to face up to the Nazi past, no matter how painful.

Brennecke's father was a detective in Hamburg when the Nazis democratically took power and then installed a genocidal dictatorship. As a child of the post-war era, Hans- Jurgen was led to believe that during the war his father was a warden at air raid shelters, a decent cop who had played no part in Hitler's tyranny.

Now he knows his father was up to his neck in the crimes of the Third Reich and was "110pc behind the Fuhrer". In 1953, Hans-Jurgen's father took his own life because his son believes he was unable to reconcile himself to the new defeated, partitioned and democratic Germany.

Having faced his ghosts, Hans-Jurgen has been to the forefront in forcing the people of Luneburg to confront the town's complicity in Hitler's diabolical project. For instance, dotted across the pavements a visitor will notice shiny metallic cobbles. They bear names. Names of Jewish citizens murdered by the Nazis. These "stumble blocks" mark the places where they once lived.

When recently a shoe shop in Luneburg announced its 75th year of trading, it fell to Hans-Jurgen and his comrades to remind the town that a shoe shop had been there for over 85 years. The original owners were Jews. The shop was seized from them and the Jews banished.

Next month, after a 10- year -long battle, an old cattle wagon will be installed near the town's railway station. It will mark the horrific deaths of over 250 Jews left locked in a cattle wagon during a lethal Allied air raid in the last days of the war. It will also remind the town that the 80 Jews who escaped the chaos were rounded up by locals before being publicly mown down by German marines.

Hans-Jurgen Brennecke is the man who prepared the dossier on Hilde Michnia after Close to Evil was screened. He did so because he seeks to establish the facts and expose lies about the Holocaust. He calls this work "cleaning up the nest".

Last weekend, the Prosecutor's office in Hamburg announced that Hilde Michnia was under investigation. The story we told in Close to Evil has gone global.

A lot can happen in two weeks.

Gerry Gregg is the producer/director of the award-winning film 'Close to Evil'

Sunday Independent

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