‘Close’ to Evil’ as Tomi goes in search of Bergen Belsen SS guard

Tomi Reichental.  (DER4813JB090)
Tomi Reichental. (DER4813JB090)

Tomi Reichental is possibly the last Holocaust survivor living in Ireland.

Tomi Reichental is possibly the last Holocaust survivor living in Ireland.

He was an inmate in Bergen Belsen camp along with his mother and brother when he was just nine years old.

For over 60 years he never spoke about what happened.

“Really what prompted me to speak about it was that I realised that I’m one of the last surviving witness to this horrific crime that was committed, and that I owe it to the victims so their memories were not forgotten.

“I lost 35 members of my own family.”

Tomi was in Derry this week showcasing his film ‘Close to Evil’ at the Foyle Film Festival.

This is the second film that has been made by Tomi and Irish film maker/producer Gerry Gregg.

Tomi is an amazing man, he is 78 and lectures all over Ireland, twice a week.

“I had to cancel two lectures to come here!” he laughs.

When Tomi’s wife died ten years ago he stopped working in the business he had in Dublin.

“I started to write articles about my experiences so that there is a record of it. Of course when you start writing about it the media come on to you, who are you, what are you...”

Through the Holocaust Commemoration Project he became involved in the ‘Speak to a Survivor’ project and realised that there were three other survivors, living in Dublin who amazingly were all captives in Bergen Belsen.

“I’m busier now than when I was working. It is something I never expected. My life is completely changed. All this is my mission now. When I started I discovered that children did not know about the Holocaust. All they knew was that six million jews perished. No one talks about the survivor. We went through a tremendous hard time and trauma.”

In 850 schools in Ireland, the Holocaust is now taught in base of Tomi’s story.

Amazingly, Tomi’s message is one of peace and reconciliation.

“I made peace with my past. I have no hatred anymore. In fact, this film is about meeting a woman and how I found out about this woman.

“She was a guard in Bergen-Belsen while I was there. She was a war criminal. I wanted to meet her and shake hands with her. Not to forgive her but to make reconciliation. Sort of closure for me. This would have been something so special. “There is no record that a holocaust survivor met a perpetrator, an actual guard that imprisoned a holocaust survivor. This would have been a historic event.”

A woman in Galway who heard Tomi speak on the radio, knew this former SS Guard and was able to show Tomi footage of testimonies that this lady gave to the Bergen Belsen museum. These interviews are included in the film and are chilling to watch.

“She is trying to turn history upside down. The interviews she gave, she told lies. For example, she said, ‘we women were not allowed in the camps. We were in the kitchens.’ We were supervised by women! We were like monkeys. They always came to see us.”

“500 people a day were dying. The crematorium could not cope. By the time we were liberated 20,000 corpses were lying around. It was unbelievable. My cousin and brother and I still discuss, how did we survive? The stench was unbearable.” The lady is asked about the smell, and says she smelled nothing. She then wonders why Josef Kramer brought all these corpses to the camp. Implying that no one died in Bergen Belsen.

In this film, Tomi made the difficult decision to attempt to meet this female SS Guard.

One of the first scenes filmed was an interview in Israel with Tomi’s family. “I got a terrible resistance from my family. They said ‘How can you even contemplate to meet her? She is a murderess’...etc. But I have a different outlook, because of my lectures. My whole outlook is about reconciliation and against racism.”

Tomi shows me a certificate that he received, the German Nation’s highest honour awarded to an individual, an Order of Merit. The presentation was made by His Excellency the German Ambassador to Ireland Dr. Eckhard Lübkemeier in January. His pride is clear. “It’s for the work that I do. It is a great honour. It’s a very rare thing. I also received a medal. I can wear it on state occasions. Now I am just waiting for my invitation to get the chance to wear it!”

Gerry Gregg, Irish producer, said he ‘was privileged’ to work with Tomi on this project. “This film is there as a testimony to the worst crime in history. It fell to me to facilitate him telling the story. Tomi becomes the investigative journalist. Tomi who spent most of his life in precision engineering or making jewellery now goes in search of a war criminal.”

There’s a friendship and light heartedness between the two.

“We’re the Tom and Gerry Show!” “Tomi couldn’t wait to get out of The Turner Prize exhibition and back onto the bridge – for him that was a work of art.”

Tomi laughs, ‘I admire the Peace bridge. I touched everything, it’s so beautifully made.”

The film was shown on Friday night as part of the Foyle Film Festival. Tomi and Gerry did a Q + A afterwards and Tomi signed copies of his book ‘I was a Boy in Belsen.’