Inheritance is an extraordinary, gut-wrenching account of the continuing effects of Nazi horrors on human souls. The Schindler’s List portrayal of the Plaszow concentration camp and its brutal commander, Amon Goeth, set in motion the events recounted by this new documentary. Inheritance is a Holocaust film like no other. It tells the stories of two women with very different scars from the World War II genocide of Europe’s Jews — whose sorrows and angers intersect in the haunting memory of one man.
Left: Amon Goeth, Monika’s father, was the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp.
Now in her 60s, Monika Hertwig has struggled a lifetime with what she learned at age 11 — that her father, Amon Goeth, had not been killed in World War II like other soldiers, but was hanged as a war criminal when she was a baby. Over the years, she forced herself to learn more about “Amon,” but when Spielberg’s movie came out in 1993, Monica became, in her own words, “sick with the truth.” Helen Jonas was 15 years old when she arrived with other Jews at the Plaszow camp in Poland, which was both a work camp and a death camp. In one of those strange twists of fate that exposed her to daily humiliations and beatings but probably saved her life, an imposing SS officer one day pointed at her and ordered, “I want her in my house.” It was Amon Goeth.
Monika begins Inheritance with a powerfully understated observation that few can make with equal authority: “Every father in a war should think about his children.” Born in 1945 and only a year old when Polish authorities hanged Goeth, Monika never knew her father and had little curiosity about him. Many German children in those years were growing up without fathers — they had died fighting in the war — and no one talked about the war anyway. But this veil was strangely pierced when Monika, 11 years old, was told spitefully by her mother, “You are like your father and you will die like him!”
Left: Monika Hertwig
Monika, who had never gotten along with her mother, was so struck and puzzled by what her mother had said that she went to the woman she most trusted, her maternal grandmother. And for the first time, Monika heard the truth: “They hanged your father.” Why? “Because he killed Jews.” It’s a testament to the postwar German will to forget that the young Monika knew nothing about the history of Jews in Germany or what happened to Jews during the war. So her grandmother began Monika’s painful reeducation, telling her with guilt and shame about her father. A more terrible paternal legacy would be difficult to imagine.
As camp commander, Amon Goeth, a fanatical anti-Semite, held absolute authority of life and death over every inmate. Not content to oversee the death of thousands, he rode about on a white horse, personally killing, beating and torturing prisoners with apparent sadistic glee. Helen saw that look of animal pleasure whenever Goeth beat her while hurling vulgar invectives. Living in a basement room of the “beautiful villa” Goeth had built for himself and his wife, Helen daily heard the sounds of shots coming from the camp and witnessed innumerable acts of murder and brutality. Goeth made a point of personally shooting to death Helen’s boyfriend, a young resistance fighter, just as the youth finished caring for and burying Helen’s sick mother.
Left: Helen Jonas
One ray of hope in Helen’s bleak life was Oskar Schindler, who ran the factory that used the camp’s inmates for forced labor — which saved those who did it from the gas chambers. As a maid in the Goeth household, she regularly saw Schindler who, with astounding equanimity, went from socializing with his friend, Goeth, to saving a thousand Jews, even pausing in his comings and goings to whisper to Helen that he would see to it that she would be all right. For a teenage girl living in the house of Nazi bestiality personified, these encouraging words were as mysterious as they were incredible.
Schindler did, in fact, ultimately save Helen and her sisters, and it was Helen’s appearance in a German television documentary that captured Monika’s attention. Here was a woman who had lived in her father’s house in the years just before her birth. Here was a direct witness to what her father had become at Plaszow. And as important for Monika, here was someone who might shed light on her mother’s state of mind as she, too, lived in that house, within gunshot sound of the concentration camp.
Helen at first resists the idea of meeting Monika. She can feel sorry for Monika but why should she be expected to help the child of a “perpetrator”? Eventually she comes to see that returning to Poland again and meeting Monica might serve her own emotional need still to find answers. The women arrange to meet at the Plaszow camp memorial to the unnamed thousands who died there. The meeting, with Helen’s daughter Vivian accompanying her, must count as one of the most heartrending and searing evocations of the Holocaust ever filmed, especially when the women visit the “beautiful villa,” still standing with its horrible memories for Helen and implacable reality for Monika.
And yet, for all the terror and despair evoked by the memory of Amon Goeth, Inheritance is ultimately a portrait of two brave and remarkably resilient women who bear witness to an unchangeable past in the name of a better future.
“I first contacted Monika Hertwig, the daughter of Amon Goeth, to ask for her permission to use photographs of her father in a documentary we were producing for the 10th-anniversary Schindler’s List DVD,” says director James Moll. “She was charming. Easy to talk to. Then suddenly, Monika surprised me with a statement completely off the subject. She said, ‘I am not my father.’ That statement became the genesis of Inheritance.”
Inheritance is a production of Allentown Productions, Moll’s Los Angeles-based independent film company.