Even if you’ve decided you never want to see another Holocaust film — you’ll want to reconsider and make time for “Inheritance” (9 p.m. Wednesday on PBS, but check local TV listings).
Once you start watching this moving documentary, you won’t be able to stop until it’s over. That’s partly because it’s underlying assumption — similar to one of our core principles here at ReadTheSpirit — is that the most powerful spiritual stories unfold in the lives of ordinary people.
One can argue that Monika Hertwig (above) and Helen Jonas (right) are not ordinary people. Monika is the German daughter of one of the most infamous monsters of the Holocaust. Here in the United States, part of Helen Jonas’ story as a Holocaust survivor was included in an earlier documentary.
But, until now, neither woman has stepped out onto the global stage in this prominent way. And neither woman has any particular training in the kind of dialogue and reconciliation they attempt in this film. They’re both essentially ordinary older women who make a daring decision to meet and come to terms with the horrors that still shape both of their lives.
Another reason this film will resonate so powerfully with viewers is that it seems to complete other well-known Holocaust narratives.
If you’ve read or seen “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Ineritance” answers the question: What might have happened when the daughter of the Nazi camp commander becomes a mature adult herself?
If you’ve read or seen “Schindler’s List,” “Inheritance” answers: What happened to the monster Among Goeth, portrayed so hauntingly by Ralph Fiennes? And what happened to members of Goeth’s traumatized household?
If you read about or watched the earlier documentary about the newly uncovered Auschwitz photo album, then “Inheritance” answers: How could these brutal killers carry on social lives with friends and family members, even in the years they were sending thousands to their deaths?
Monika Hertwig was an infant when her father, Amon Goeth, first was arrested by Nazi authorities for stealing some of the spoils seized from his Jewish victims. That may sound bizarre, but the Third Reich claimed the rights to all such looting. Then, immediately after the war, Goeth was convicted of mass murder and hung.
In fact, if you’ve seen “Schindler’s List,” the testimony of this new documentary indicates that Goeth really was the shocking sociopath depicted by Ralph Fiennes. He enjoyed murdering people and did so personally on a daily basis. Between the 500 people he murdered himself and the others whose killings he ordered, Goeth was responsible for 8,000 deaths.
As a girl, Helen Jonas was a slave in Goeth’s house. She lived in mortal fear and watched her own friends murdered, while she served Goeth as well as the attractive, stylishly dressed lady of the house: Monika’s mother.
As this new documentary opens, Monika learns that Helen is alive, after seeing her briefly appear in a film about the Holocaust. She decides to make contact and ask if they could meet. Monika not only is horrified by her own father’s actions — but, even worse, is unable to come to terms with her mother’s choice of living with this creature and enjoying the lavish lifestyle torn from the thousands of people he killed.
Why attempt such a meeting?
Monika isn’t quite clear as the film opens, except that she feels a deep yearning to try to bring some healing to the world. She says, “If you can’t change the past maybe you can do something about the future.” She is a grandmother, she explains, and she wants her family’s next generation to grow up knowing that it is possible to reach out across almost any chasm.
The story becomes more complicated. We learn that Helen survived the war years, in the end, because of the personal intervention of Oskar Schindler — and we learn from Monika that the film “Schindler’s List” was a watershed in her own awareness about her father’s life. (Monika’s infamous mother committed suicide some years before “Schindler’s List” was made, apparently overcome in the end with her own sense of guilt.)
So, these two figures whose lives were interwoven through so much of Holocaust history decide to meet at the site of the camp in Poland — and decide to visit Amon Goeth’s house, which still stands on the edge of the memorial to those who died at the camp.
You will not soon forget their meeting, their walk and their talk together.
For two people completely unprepared for such a meeting — no training, no facilitator, no guide, no counselor on hand — these two women figure out for themselves what should unfold. (The documentary’s director has explained in interviews that his crew stood at a distance and filmed the meeting with wireless microphones and long lenses so that the women could develop the meeting as they wished without the interference of the crew.)
It won’t spoil the film to share with you two lines that I’m sure I won’t forget.
In the end, Monika says: “This is the beginning of another life for me — a life in which I am able to live with the truth.”
And Helen? She says, “In spite of everything, I love life.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
PBS’ “P.O.V.” Web page has a number of important resources, including more background on Helen Jonas’ life and a historical overview of the Plaszow Camp in Warsaw, Poland. ALSO, starting Thursday, PBS will “stream” the entire documentary through its “P.O.V.” site.
BUY the video. The film will be released January 6, but you can pre-order it now by clicking on the Amazon link in the box at right.
Check out ReadTheSpirit’s Earlier Coverage: We wrote about the documentary based on the Auschwitz photo album. We also explored the controversy surrounding “Striped Pajamas” and we shared some of our readers’ many responses to “Pajamas.”
Wikipedia Resources: There’s a fairly extensive overview of the Plaszow camp. The biography of Amon Goeth is more extensive than what you’ll find on the PBS site. And, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen “Schindler’s List,” check out the various Wiki materials on this famous story about industrialist Oskar Schindler.
You Also Can Read about Goeth’s Trial: A fairly detailed text from his 1948 war-crimes trial is now online.
The Holocaust Research Project: This non-profit effort also has a good online summary about the camp with photos and other historical resources.
(Photos today courtesy of Don Holtz for “Inheritance.”)
Please, Tell Us What You Think.
You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Facebook, Digg, Amazon, GoodReads and some of
the other social-networking sites as well, if you’re part of those
(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)