Fear and trepidation were Helen Jonas’s every day companions while she served as a housemaid in the villa of Amon Goeth, the notorious Nazi commander of Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow, Poland. Six decades after those horrid years, Jonas received a letter from Monika Hertwig, Goeth’s daughter. She wanted to meet her.
“It wasn’t an easy task,” Jonas told The Jewish Press. “I hesitated a long time . But at the same time I thought of my dear parents and my family and friends and I thought this would be the time for me to talk for all the people who perished so tragically.”
After some soul-searching and encouragement from family and friends, Jonas boarded traveled a plane met Hertwig on the grounds of the former Plaszow concentration camp. Together they also visited Goeth’s villa, which still stands. Tears, frightening memories, and arguments passed between the two women.
This emotional meeting is the story of the new P.O.V.-produced documentary, “Inheritance,” which, this month, premieres nationwide on PBS (December 10th in New York; other locations may air it later).
James Moll, a co-founder of the Shoah Foundation and the director of “Inheritance,” told The Jewish Press that the film’s inception was unplanned. He had called up Hertwig several years ago to receive permission to use a photograph of her father for a short documentary he was producing for the 10th-anniversary “Schindler’s List” DVD. While talking, Hertwig suddenly said to him, “I am not my father.”
“It took me by surprise,” Moll recalls. “So we started having this conversation about what her life was like growing up the daughter of this Nazi, this murderer.”
Hertwig, in fact, only first learned of her father’s war-time activities at age 11 when her mother yelled at her, “You are like your father and you will die like him.” (Goeth was hanged by the Poles three times – he survived the first two attempts – shortly after the war while Hertwig was still a baby.)
Holocaust survivor Helen Jonas (left) meets Monika Hertwig, daughter of Nazi Commander Amon Goeth, at the Plaszow Concentration Camp memorial.(Photo credit: Don Holtz)
When she first watched “Schindler’s List” 15 years ago Hertwig hated Spielberg for exposing her to the truth. (Ralph Fiennes plays Goeth in the film.) Today, however, she finds herself publicly speaking of the Holocaust in Germany, having promised Jonas she would do so during their meeting.
Jonas and Hertwig are not friends. In response to the question, “Do you maintain contact with Hertwig?” Jonas first sounded shocked and then answered, “No, no sir, I can’t do that.” At the same time, though, she doesn’t hold her father’s actions against her. “She didn’t do anything to me.” And yet she wavered when asked if she identified Hertwig with her father: “No, I don’t connect it I’m trying not to connect it, let’s put it that way.”
Talking of her years in Goeth’s villa, Jonas said that it was Oscar Schindler, the hero in “Schindler’s List” and a frequent guest at the villa, who saved her life, bringing her and her two sisters to his famous factory in Czechoslovakia after Goeth had been arrested for embezzlement. “He used to see how Goeth humiliated me,” Jonas recalls. “He saw how scared I was. Occasionally he’d come to the kitchen and pat my head and say, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, you’ll survive.’ But I was very confused because to me he was a German . But then he kept his promise and he came for me and my sisters.”
Six decades later Jonas is now publicly reliving those years. If she doesn’t, she says, “so much will be lost for the future generations and nobody will know about the Holocaust.”