Breaking Silence, Survivor Sets Out to Meet Holocaust Past

MULTYFARNHAM, Ireland — The setting could hardly have been more incongruous. Outside the window, lush pastures spread in the perfection of a late winter morning. Inside, a small man with a yellow star pinned to his sweater captivated an audience with the horrors of his boyhood in the concentration camp called Bergen-Belsen.


He does not regard himself as vengeful. So in 2012, when an Irish woman living in Hamburg heard about his story and said her neighbor, a former Bergen-Belsen guard, would be willing to meet him, he went.

“As far as I am aware, it would have been the first private meeting between victim and perpetrator,” Mr. Reichental said. “She would have had a lifetime to reflect. I could never forgive, but I could understand how a 21-year-old girl [Hilde Michnia, now 93] might end up being what she was, so I decided to see her.”


The would-be conciliation, however, took an unexpected twist. During their research into Ms. Michnia’s background, the filmmakers discovered a 2004 interview in which she was unapologetic for her role at the camp, where at least 52,000 people perished. […]

[…] In the 2004 interview, she insisted that only lazy prisoners went hungry. She said she spent her time working in the kitchens and saw no ill treatment and could not recall any smells from rotting corpses.

She described her role as a guard on an infamous forced march in 1945 from Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Poland, in which an estimated 1,400 women died of starvation and cold. She said she prepared stews and hot chocolate for the prisoners.

On Jan. 25, Mr. Gregg showed “Close to Evil” in Lüneburg, Germany, the city where Ms. Michnia was convicted after the war. After viewing it, a local historian, Hans-Jürgen Brennecke, who had contributed to the documentary as the son of a Nazi war criminal, filed a complaint against the former Bergen-Belsen guard for her role in the forced march, for which she was never tried.


[Reichental] has had little time to dwell on the meeting that never was but remained perplexed as to why she had sought him out. “I was certainly not disappointed she didn’t agree to meet me, but I was certainly distressed to learn of her continued denials,” he said. “It is just as well we didn’t meet, perhaps, because shaking her hand would be something I would have regretted for the rest of my life.”

DOUGLAS DALBY, The New York Times