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Tomi Reichental

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SCCC hosts Long Island documentary premiere

Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental and film director Gerry Gregg respond to questions from the audience. Photo by Donna Newman

By Donna Newman

The documentary “Close to Evil” is the result of a collaboration between Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental and filmmaker Gerry Gregg. It was screened at Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman Campus on Oct. 29 for an audience of more than 400, including Honors College students as well as interested Long Islanders. The film was viewed in rapt silence and followed by a penetrating Q-and-A.

Steven Klipstein, assistant director of the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding, introduced the program, making reference to the Holocaust Museum on the top floor of the campus library that documents the ultimate sadism of that historic event. “It’s a miracle that any of these people survived,” he said. “I hope you get something out of seeing [this film].”

By coincidence, the screening was 71 years to the day after 9-year-old Tomi found himself, along with family members, on a transport heading from his village to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They had spent two years in hiding in their native Bratislava (now the capital of Slovakia) avoiding capture. Tomi survived long enough to be liberated in April 1945. After the war he attempted to return “home” only to find all traces of his former life in Bratislava gone.

Initially he immigrated to Israel before heading to Ireland, where he has lived ever since. In Ireland he started a business, fell in love, married and raised three sons. “I never spoke of it [his wartime experiences] for 55 years,” said Reichental, “I couldn’t.” He never even told his wife.

In 2003 he realized he had a responsibility to those who perished — including 35 members of his family — as one of the last living survivors, to speak out. He now speaks to student groups across Ireland to relate his experience and his eyewitness testimony about the inhumanity of Hitler’s Final Solution. In 2012 he participated in a radio broadcast that brought his story to the attention of a neighbor of former Bergen-Belsen prison guard Hilde Lisiewitz Michnia in Hanover, Germany. The neighbor contacted Reichental to tell him about the 93-year-old widow.    

As originally scripted, the documentary was meant to focus on a possible meeting between Reichental and Michnia. “I have an opportunity to meet this woman,” said Reichental to Gregg. “It would make history [for us] to go together.” He expected, in his naiveté, that Michnia was a victim of her time. Obviously, she must have been brainwashed; indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda. He thought she would show some remorse. And reconciliation was all he wanted.

As shooting progressed, the story took on a life of its own. “There were twists and turns,” said Gregg, “things we didn’t see coming. There’s even a Hollywood ending. We didn’t know any of that would happen.” The surprises include: the awarding of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, its highest honor, to Tomi Reichental, and an unexpected alliance between Reichental and Alexandra Senfft, a granddaughter of Hanns Ludin, Hitler’s ambassador to the Slovak Republic — the man responsible for the deportation (leading to extermination) of more than 60,000 Slovakian Jews.

Gregg said they hope to find a distributor for this unique film, so it can be seen throughout the United States. The two men have made two tours of America so far to present the film to select audiences. Thursday’s showing was co-sponsored by the SCCC Honors College, the Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding and the Ammerman Campus office of Campus Activities and Student Leadership Development.

The Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding, located  on the second floor of the Huntington Library on the campus of Suffolk County Community College, 533 College Road, Selden, maintains significant collections of original materials that document the Holocaust and chronicle slavery in America.

CHDHU’s mission is to educate the community on historical events and to promote cultural understanding and respect for human dignity. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and by appointment. For further information, please call 631-451-4700 or visit www.chdhu.org.