POV: How did you come to meet Monika Hertwig and Helen Jonas?
James Moll: I had been involved with Holocaust-related filmmaking in the past because I worked with Steven Spielberg in the mid-1990s to establish the Shoah Foundation, through which we interviewed Holocaust survivors all over the world. As a result, I made a feature documentary called The Last Days. And I also continued my work with Holocaust-themed films. When I was producing a film for the Schindler’s List DVD about Schindler’s survivors, I needed to contact someone to get the rights to use a photograph of Amon Goeth. It turned out that the photograph was owned by Amon Goeth’s daughter, Monika. So I called Monika out of the blue and we started to have a conversation about the photograph.
She was very nice. She spoke very good English, which surprised me. She told me that her first boyfriend had been American, so she learned English at a very young age. We were having a very nice conversation and she gave me consent to use the photograph, when all of a sudden, in the middle of the conversation, she said, “You know. I am not my father.” It came out of nowhere. I didn’t bring it up. And frankly I was surprised. I said, “Why do you say that? Do you feel that people often associate you as being your father?” And she laughed. She actually laughed and said, “Are you kidding? Of course.” So we launched into a long conversation about what her life has been like, living as the daughter of Amon Goeth. Needless to say, it’s been tragic for her.
At the same time, while I was producing the DVD documentary for the home video of Schindler’s List about Schindler’s survivors, I had met Helen Jonas at a Shoah Foundation event. Helen had been enslaved by Amon Goeth during the war, so she knew Amon Goeth quite well. Monika asked me, “Do you have any way for me to get in touch with Helen Jonas? I would like to meet her.” So I approached Helen and said, “I’ve met Monika Hertwig, Amon Goeth’s daughter.” Helen said, “No, no, no, no. I don’t want to know anything about her. I don’t want to hear it.” I could see that she was visibly shaken — she didn’t want to hear the guy’s name, she didn’t want to have anything to do with Monika. But two or three hours later, she pulled me aside and told me that she wanted to continue the conversation.
Later I called Helen and I told her that Monika would like to meet with her. At first, Helen had no interest in meeting her, but she wanted to talk about Monika, she wanted to know about her. Then some time went by. Monika sent Helen a letter and said, “Would you please meet with me? This is something I need to do. I want to learn about my father, I want to learn about my family history. I want to learn about my mother and how my mother could have let this happen? How could my mother live with my father and let him do what he was doing? He was literally going out into the camp and murdering innocent people for no reason, just because he took pleasure in it.”
Eventually Helen agreed and the two of them met in Poland. And we were there to film the meeting. It was quite extraordinary.
POV: What was Helen’s experience in the concentration camp?
Moll: Helen was only 13 when she was in the barracks in Plaszow concentration camp. When Amon Goeth came through the concentration camp one day, he saw her cleaning. And he said something to the effect of: “Any Jew who’s smart enough to clean on a day like this is smart enough to work in my household.” So he took her to work in his villa, which was at the Plaszow camp. She wasn’t allowed to leave, she wasn’t allowed to talk to her family; she was a slave and he would beat her. For Helen, a girl of 13, this was a terrifying and tragic way to spend her youth. The experience in the camp has remained with her to this day and when she saw Monika, Helen said, “I could see that she has his eyes.”
POV: Can you tell us more about what happened when Monika and Helen met?
Moll: I’ve made a lot of documentaries in the past, and although you generally don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, you have some idea. I certainly thought when Monika Hertwig met with Helen Jonas, when the daughter of a perpetrator met with a victim of the Holocaust, that there would be some sense of closure, some sense of coming together. But it didn’t turn out at all like I thought it would. In fact, I was watching it thinking, “Do I want to show this to people?” Their meeting poses more questions than it answers. For me, ultimately, when I went home and watched the footage, it was fascinating. It made me think about how the Holocaust continues to affect us, even today, in unexpected ways. So without giving away too much of what happens during the film, I can say that the meeting between the two women was very surprising.
After it was done, Helen Jonas took me aside and said, “I have more to say. We have to do more, do another interview.” We had already wrapped by that point. We were ready to fly out of Poland and come back to the United States. But we set up the camera in a hotel room and what she told me gave me a lot of insight into her pain, her struggle, where she was coming from and why she wasn’t able to necessarily forgive. Not that it was her place to forgive, because Monika didn’t do anything wrong — she’s just the child of a perpetrator — but it certainly gave me a lot of insight into Helen and what she’s had to endure in her life.
POV: One of the things that Monika explores in the film is her relationship with her mother. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Moll: Monika’s mother was there in the camp with Amon Goeth. They weren’t married — she was actually Amon’s mistress. Amon Goeth was executed when Monika was still a baby, so she knew her father only through her mother as she was growing up. When she was young, her mother told her, “Your father fought in the war and he died in the war.” But she didn’t say anything about his running a concentration camp, she didn’t say anything about his murdering thousands of people needlessly. One day, when Monika was 11 years old, she got into an argument with her mother, and her mother said, “You’re a lot like your father, and some day you’re going to die like him.” Monika didn’t understand. She said, “What are you talking about? How can I die like him? He died in the war.”
Monika was so young, and she was really traumatized by finding out who her father really was. And then when she was an adult, Schindler’s List came out, with Ralph Fiennes portraying her father. This was yet another big turning point in Monika’s life because now her father’s story and her mother’s story — her mother is also portrayed in Schindler’s List — are out there for millions of people to see. So once again, it raised questions about her past, who she is and the legacy that she has no choice but to accept.
Monika says that after she saw Schindler’s List, she hated Steven Spielberg and she didn’t want to believe what was in the film. But over time she came to accept that it was true. To this day, she continues to read about the Holocaust, to learn about what actually took place, but still it’s not enough. It’s not enough for her, in her mind, to be able to accept it, to reconcile with it, to come to terms with it. She still carries a lot of guilt.
POV: Why were you interested in telling this story in particular?
Moll: I grew up here in the United States and had a public school education, so when it came to learning about the Holocaust, I learned what most people do, which is the number: 6 million. It’s hard to put a face and an emotion to that statistic until you’ve actually had a one-on-one conversation with a survivor and you start to understand the implications of what that number really means.
Because I didn’t grow up Jewish, I didn’t have anyone in my family who was affected by the Holocaust. So when I had the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg to start the Shoah Foundation in the ’90s, I really came to know a lot of survivors and I started to feel a connection to the Holocaust. One thing that I didn’t come to think about was how the Holocaust impacted the families of the perpetrators. I’ve met second-generation survivors and I understand how the Holocaust impacted the children of survivors, even how it impacted the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors, but I had never really thought about how the Holocaust has impacted the lives of the Nazi perpetrators. So when I came across Monika Hertwig, who was the daughter of Amon Goeth, it was eye-opening for me. It was surprising to hear from her perspective about how her life has been literally destroyed by growing up as the daughter of a perpetrator.
POV: What is the film about, thematically, for you?
Moll: It’s a film that raises questions about what our parents did and how we each carry with us the consequences of our parents’ actions. Monika says in the beginning of the film that every father who is in a war should think about their actions, because their children are going to have to live with whatever it is they do. For me, the film looks at how our actions will affect our children and our children’s children.