POV: Inheritance

Monika Hertwig, daughter of Nazi commander Amon Goeth, beside the villa at the Plaszow Concentration Camp where her parents lived during WWII. (Modern photos: Don Holtz)

This notion of "help" -- impossible, necessary -- colors Inheritance, a documentary about living with memories of a Nazi father.


Distributor: Docurama
Cast: Monika Hertwig, Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: PBS
US Release Date: 2009-01-06

"Every father who is in a war should think about his children," says Monkia Hertwig. "When they're grown up, when they see what their fathers did, they will be in the same situation as I am and they never will live a normal life." Seated in her kitchen, coffee cup on the counter near her elbow, Hertwig looks quite like a "normal" housewife. As she speaks, however, describing childhood memories both vague and precise, she reveals that her experience is anything but typical. Her father was, by all accounts, a monster, not just "in a war," but the agent of unspeakable atrocities. Hertwig's father was Amon Goeth, the Plaszow concentration camp commander played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.

Appearing in James Moll's Inheritance, Hertwig struggles mightily with this legacy. The effects are most explicit in her tearful meeting with Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a Holocaust survivor and, most horrifically, one of two Jewish slave girls Goeth kept in his home while overseeing the murders and abuses at Plaszow. As the film leads to their encounter, each woman appears separately, quietly facing the camera as she narrates her expectations and fears, as well as feelings of guilt, anger, and victimization. An infant when her father wreaked his particular havoc, Hertwig only learned what happened long after he was dead. Her mother, Ruth, told her only that Amon died during the war, not that he was executed by hanging or why. "Everyone told me," she says, "If my father had been alive, he was such a nice man and he would do anything for me."

As the film lets this fiction hang over Hertwig's image, she recalls the tensions she felt toward her mother Ruth. "We didn't like each other at all," she says, recalling that she was more inclined to spend time with her grandmother. "We were like water and fire." The conflict came to something of a head when, one hot summer day in 1956, Ruth snapped at her 11-year-old daughter. Remembering that she felt full of hate herself, Hertwig says of her mother, "She looked at me and said, 'You are like your father and one time, you will die like him.'"

Now a grandmother herself and taking care of her young grandson David (because, she says briefly, her daughter "had a problem with drug addiction when he was born, so she couldn't take him"), Hertwig was confounded at the time and sought an explanation from her grandmother, Agnes Kalder. The history she discovered was, of course, profoundly upsetting: Goeth was in charge of Plaszow for exactly 500 days and was "responsible for thousands of deaths." Here the documentary cuts to Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, whose memories of Goeth are extremely specific. When she was just 14, Goeth assigned her household tasks and when he was inevitably dissatisfied, he slapped her, threw her down stairways, and called her, among other things, a "stupid Jew." "I realized," she says, "that I had to grow up. I'm no more child, I'm no more with my mother, I'm here and I have to obey."

Here Inheritance cuts back to Hertwig, setting a pattern in which the two women's memories of the man are juxtaposed. Goeth's daughter remembers hearing about Steven Spielberg's film: as she describes going to see it for the first time, the documentary includes Fiennes' memorable introduction as the commander, riding in his car and complaining that he is "fucking freezing." "I started to hate that Spielberg," says Hertwig, "for telling me the truth."

Even as she asserts her confusing and galvanizing anger -- which leads directly to her research and discovery of Jonas-Rosenzweig's whereabouts, as well as their agreement to meet -- Hertwig here also embodies the documentary's most effective strategy, that is, indirection. Inheritance never pretends to expose a single "truth," but instead shows in a series of scenes that range from devastating to frustrating to puzzling, Hertwig and Jonas-Rosenzweig's repeated efforts to grasp various truths, their simultaneous abilities and inabilities to comprehend each other's perspectives and their discrete, irreconcilable traumas.

In part, this indirection is indicated by the women's narrations: though Hertwig's addict daughter never appears in the film, the fact of her illness sadly shapes and is shaped by her mother's story. At the same time, Jonas-Rosenzweig brings along her own daughter Vivian to the meeting, which takes place -- so dramatically -- at Plaszow, near Krakow. As the women make their journeys to this dreadful site, they appear on board airplanes, in sterile airports, in the Sheraton Krakow Hotel, in separate frames, nervous and set on a course toward one another. When they come together at the former camp, now grown over with grasses and marked by memorial stones and shrines, they stand apart, awkward and yet, somehow, willing to touch one another, to share stories and remember.

That said, the film also makes clear that their stories will never allow them to feel comfort together. Jonas-Rosenzweig cries as she translates for her daughter a plaque that says, "between years 1943 and 1945, few thousand Jews were killed and they don't know the names, the only name is Jews." She remembers her father being dragged away into the night, Amon Goeth riding a white horse, and Amon Goeth shooting her boyfriend, Adam. The film shows photos, apparent snapshots taken by the Nazi and his friends, of their wives sunning themselves in lounge chairs and Goeth himself standing on his balcony, bare-chested with rifle or cigarette in hand. The poses are unnerving because they are so "normal."

Now, the women stand near the plaque, Hertwig swatting away a fly that buzzes near Jonas-Rosenzweig, an odd gesture of intimacy and protectiveness. A photo of four-year-old Amon appears on screen when Jonas-Rosenzweig asks Hertwig, "Do you think something happened to him as a young man, that he was so evil?"

But Hertwig has no answers, only questions. She asks Jonas-Rosenzweig how her mother behaved, desperate to know how Ruth lived in the house with Amon, how she watched him abuse others, how she felt while watching. Jonas-Rosenzweig can't explain, though she offers a weird sort of comfort in a memory of Ruth speaking to her. "She covered her eyes," says the former slave girl, "She did stay in the kitchen and said to us, 'If I could help you I would, but I can't.'"

This notion of "help" -- impossible, necessary -- colors the documentary. Whether or not the scene in the kitchen ever took place, it offers precious little comfort for Hertwig, who finds it hard to believe anything anymore (her most poignant example is an ornament her mother treasured and claimed belonged to Hertwig's grandfather, though now she thinks it may have been stolen from a prisoner). The trauma is unending. As Hertwig says at film's start, her father's experience "in war" has made her feel ongoing chaos and regret. For her part, Jonas-Rosenzweig's 35-year marriage to a fellow survivor ended when he took his own life in 1980. Though each wants to "help" the other, to help her come to some sense of "closure" or perhaps, in Hertwig's phrasing, "a new beginning," Either way, they live with the past, each moment a lesson.


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