James Moll: Bringing this film together and making it happen was a little bit of a long process. I happened to meet Monika by coincidence when I needed to get permission to use a photograph of Amon Goeth for another documentary, about Oskar Schindler. And I met Helen at a Shoah Foundation function in Los Angeles, just after meeting Monika. Monika had asked me, “Do you know Helen? I’d been trying to reach this woman for many years. I’d been trying to meet her for many years and never managed to meet her.” And I went to Helen and I told her about Monika. Helen said, “I can’t do this. Looking at her photograph reminds me of Amon Goeth. It’s very, very difficult for me.” But later that same day Helen said to me, “Let’s talk more.” She clearly wanted to talk more about it, and there was more to be said. Long story short, they did get in touch with each other and decided to meet.
A lot of people often ask me: Do Monika and Helen still speak with each other, have they kept in touch with each other? I think that’s something that we can let each of them answer. Helen, do you want to start with that?
Helen Jonas: It would rather be difficult for me [to keep in touch]. I feel for Monika, but I also have difficulties seeing her because it reminds me of those difficult times of my life with Amon Goeth. I have to think of myself as well, because the memories are quite painful. So because of that I do not keep in touch with Monika.
James: The two of you have not kept in touch?
Helen: No, this is the second time I’ve seen her. I was touched by the letter she sent me saying that she understands it is hard for me, [that] it’s hard for her as well, but that we have to do it for the murdered people. That really touched me. She’s a sensitive person, and she wants to do something about it, not to [let the Holocaust] be forgotten. So, she’s brave.
James: Do you think that people — second generation in Germany, your generation and the next generation — feel the same way you do about [needing to remember]?
Monika Hertwig: David, my grandson feels the same way. He’s educated. He comes with me to the synagogue, and we went with him to Auschwitz. I didn’t tell him what really happened there, because he was just 5 years old, but I told him it’s a big cemetery where Jewish people are sleeping for a long, long time. And he knows about the Holocaust — not everything, but he knows a bit, and he will know more and more. He told me, “I don’t want a great-grandfather.” I said, “David, you have four great-grandfathers. Choose one.” He said, “Okay.”
James: When we first started talking about doing this film one of the things you said to me is that potentially, some of some other Holocaust survivors might think twice about why we would be focusing on a perpetrator or the children of perpetrators. What kind of response to the film have you gotten from survivors? Have you spoken to other survivors about the film?
Helen: Very much so. Before I agreed to do this documentary, I did speak to a lot of survivors, and they gave me a lot of courage and they told me, “Who can tell it better than you, Helen? And if you can do it we would be very happy and proud of you.” They gave me a lot of encouragement.
I had reservations because I didn’t think I could do it. I thought “How can I possibly have to walk the walk of my past and relate to all those atrocities and brutalities that were practiced on us? How will I be able to do it?” But then I just remembered my people. I felt that I was a survivor, which was a miracle, and those other people perished so tragically. Who will speak for them if not I? I felt that it was my responsibility.
James: When you saw that photograph of Monika for the first time, what did you think?
Helen: Well, she had dark hair at the time, and the resemblance was striking. However, based on what she said in that letter, I understood right there that she was quite unaware for a long time that he was the commandant [of the Plaszow Camp] and was such a brutal murderer — until her grandmother told her that she saw some of the murders [committed under Goeth]. Then I read that she started to search and try to find out more about it. When you, James, touched my shoulder and said, “I want to speak about Monika,” all the things from that time came back. I hadn’t told anybody about it because there is so much to talk about the Holocaust.
James: Yeah, there’s so much on your side of the story, Helen, and there’s so much on your side of the story, Monika. And we couldn’t get all of it into in the film obviously, because the time is very limited, and it’s a much bigger story. But hopefully the fact that you did come together and you did have that experience together is something that we can all take away and continue to learn more about. It certainly opened a lot of dialogue. A lot of people have written to me, and I know that you’ve heard from a lot of people that have been touched by the film for various reasons. So hopefully that dialogue will continue.
We have time for one more question.
Audience Member: It’s a question for James. It’s a very unflinching documentary, and painful to watch. And in some ways what is going on right now, here, is like a continuation of the documentary. My question to you is, what did you have in mind for the film initially?
James: I didn’t know initially. I had met Monika when I called her to get the rights to use a photograph of her father in another documentary, and we were talking and suddenly she says, “You know, I’m not my father.” And just those words resonated with me. I said, “Of course.” I said, “Do people judge you based on who your father was?” She started to laugh, and she talked to me for a long time and told me about growing up as Amon Goeth’s daughter. I thought “This is something I’ve never heard before, despite all the films I’d done on the Holocaust and all the history and education.” So that’s really how it started.
There are a lot of films, there’s a lot of documentation out there, there are a lot of places where people can go and learn about the context of World War II, the context of the Holocaust. A film like this is a much more personal journey and a much more personal experience, and I assume that the audience for this film is coming to it with a little bit of understanding and a little bit of knowledge of the context. I’m hoping that that’s the case. This is sort of part two of learning about the Holocaust: It’s not trying to explain the Holocaust, but it’s another chapter of it. Right? Is that a fair statement?
Helen: As far as the way I feel about it, it all started with the movie Schindler’s List. The movie Schindler’s List brought an awakening. Before the movie we didn’t talk about it.
James: Survivors didn’t talk about it?
Helen: Nobody wanted to know. And we couldn’t talk. Somehow, when the movie came out it was an awakening. We were able to speak to our children more freely. And I tell you, it’s very painful. It was and it is very painful for me to talk to my children about those horrors, those times, but they have to know, and they want to know.
I speak to students in schools and universities, and I tell them my story. I spoke at the university in Florida. Students [in the audience] had taken a course in Holocaust studies, and [after my talk], two gentlemen came up and said, “Helen, Dr. Berger gave us a wonderful class, very knowledgeable about the happenings of the Holocaust, but you made it real.” So when I speak to students, I leave them with this message: I met two people in power. One was Amon Goeth, who used his power to torture and kill innocent people, and he was an evil man. The other one was Oskar Schindler, who used his power to save, to protect innocent people in crisis, and he was a good human being. So remember, we all have a choice in life. That’s my message that I leave young people with, because it’s all about making choices.
James: Well said.
POV thanks our partners for hosting this event:
Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
The Museum’s three-floor Core Exhibition educates people of all ages and backgrounds about the rich tapestry of Jewish life over the past century — before, during, and after the Holocaust. Special exhibitions include Woman of Letters: Irene Nemirovsky and Suite Francaise, on view through March 22 and The Shooting of Jews in Ukraine: Holocaust by Bullets, opening on Nov. 24. The Museum offers visitors a vibrant public program schedule in its Edmond J. Safra Hall. It is also home to Andy Goldsworthy’s memorial Garden of Stones, as well as James Carpenter’s Reflection Passage, Gift of The Gruss Lipper Foundation. The Museum receives general operating support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and is a founding member of the Museums of Lower Manhattan. For more information, visit www.mjhnyc.org.
The National World War II Museum
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA, tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world — why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today — so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn. Dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum and now designated by Congress as the nation’s official World War II Museum, it celebrates the American Spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifice of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and the Home Front. For more information, call 504-527-6012 or visit www.nationalww2museum.org.