Nazi's Daughter Struggles With Her 'Inheritance' Monika Hertwig, daughter of Nazi Amon Goeth, has spent her life dealing with her father's murderous legacy. James Moll's documentary, Inheritance, tells the story of how Hertwig has reached out to Helen Jonas, one of Goeth's former slaves.
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Nazi's Daughter Struggles With Her 'Inheritance'

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Nazi's Daughter Struggles With Her 'Inheritance'

Nazi's Daughter Struggles With Her 'Inheritance'

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NEAL CONAN, Host:

Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, we'll look at the fallout from the Megan Meier cyber-bullying trial. A jury last week found the defendant guilty on misdemeanor charges of accessing computers without authorization. The question for the rest of us - does that criminalize the creation of fake online profiles? We'll talk about it tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

As a teenager, Helen Jonas was rounded up with her family and sent to the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland, where a monstrous Nazi commander named Amon Goeth took her into his house.

M: He lived like a king, and he had his mistress with him. And he had those two slaves and unfortunately, I was one of them.

CONAN: Among the commandant's friends was a man named Oscar Schindler. In 1946, Goeth was convicted of the murders of tens of thousands of people and hanged for his crimes. Many years later, Goeth's daughter Monika Hertwig saw a documentary on TV about Schindler and Holocaust survivors, which included an interview with a woman she'd heard about her whole life, who used to be a slave in her father's house.

M: And then I saw her. I liked her. Just from seeing that woman, I thought I ever knew this woman in my life.

CONAN: The story of their meeting is told in a new documentary, "Inheritance," which will be screened here in Washington tonight at the Holocaust Museum. Later, it will be broadcast on PBS as part of the POV Series. It starts December 10th. Check your local listings. Helen Jonas and Director James Moll join us here in Studio 3A, and welcome, both of you, to Talk of the Nation. It's pleasure to have you in our program today.

M: Thank you.

CONAN: And Helen, we all watched the movie "Schindler's List" as a piece of well, Hollywood history. What was it like for you to sit in a theater and see Ralph Fiennes portray Amon Goeth, the man who you call a monster?

M: It was very real. To me, sitting there and watching, especially Amon Goeth ordering to kill. I felt - when he hit the maid, I felt the pain on my cheek. It was very difficult to watch. It was very realistic.

CONAN: As you describe him in the film "Inheritance," he was a brute, a man who routinely pushed you down the stairs for the slightest of infractions, for any reason whatsoever, a man who enjoyed killing.

M: I felt he did. It was his sport. It was something that he enjoyed, and he felt good about it. His expression on his face - when he went to kill people and came back to the villa, he whistled a happy tune. He looked content. It was unbelievable to see a human being behaving in such way. He was a brutal murderer.

CONAN: And again, most of us know Oscar Schindler as a character in a movie or in a book. You knew him when you were a girl as a visitor, a friend of this monster.

M: He came as a frequent guest to Amon Goeth. He stayed over nights. But whenever they had parties, he'd participate with the crowd with other SS, and a lot of talk was taking place in the living room. I was not allowed to stay when they started to speak or discuss things. However, he was different. He was civilian. He was one of those that was striking. He always had a smile on his face, and he would come down to the kitchen to comfort me. I didn't understand at the time who the man was because I saw him with the rest of the Gestapo, SS. And he also embraced many times Amon Goeth, like his best friend. So I was quite confused. But at the same time, him coming down, comforting me, telling me I will survive, to have hope. He patted me on my head, and I was scared for a while, not knowing what he really was - 'til after the war and being in his camp, I found out that he was for real. He was the one that tried to help and tried to save us.

CONAN: Let's bring Oscar-winning filmmaker James Moll into the conversation, and it's good to have you on the program as well. How did you get on to this story?

M: I had been working with Steven Spielberg with an organization called the Shoah Foundation, where we videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors all over the world. And Helen was one of the survivors who gave testimony to the Shoah Foundation. A few years after that, I was working on a documentary about Oscar Schindler for the 10-year anniversary of the "Schindler's List" release and needed to get the rights to a photograph, and it was owned by Amon Goeth's daughter, Monika. So, I called her in Germany and started to speak with her - arrogantly, as an American calling Germany and thinking someone's going to answer the phone and speak to me in English.

CONAN: In English, yeah.

M: Which she did, and in the middle of the conversation she gave me the rights to use the photograph and she said, you know, I'm not my father. And right away, that started me asking her questions about, you know, growing up, have people always identified her by who her father was? And she sort of laughed and said, of course. And that started the conversation where I thought, OK, this is a side of the Holocaust that as many stories as I've heard, and as much as I've studied about the Holocaust, this is something I haven't heard. This is a side, you know, to hear not only how the Nazis affected the Jews and their other victims but their own families, was something I hadn't explored. So, I knew at that time I wanted to.

CONAN: Monika was supposed to be with us on the show today, she was delayed on a flight from Paris, and we regret that she couldn't be with us today, but we wanted to go ahead and have the conversation, anyway. But I did want to ask you, as you spoke with her, was it her idea to have the meeting with Helen?

M: It was. She asked me - she got - not in that initial conversation, but we spoke afterwards. She asked me if I could find Helen, if I knew Helen and if I could find Helen because she had been trying to get in touch with her for years. She had been looking for answers - I think not so much about her father, because she knows who her father was, but about her mother, who had lived there. And she really was trying to get some answers, hoping that maybe her mother wasn't as bad as perhaps she thought, and she really wanted to meet with Helen. So, I approached Helen at a Shoah Foundation function and said, I've been in touch with Monika, and she would like to get in touch with you, and Helen immediately said no. I can't do that, I don't want to meet this woman. And later, Helen came up to me that same day and she took my arm and said, I want to talk to you more about this. And it started an ongoing conversation, which ultimately led to the - both women deciding to meet with each other in Poland at Plazsow at the camp. And we were there with cameras, and we filmed it.

CONAN: Helen Jonas, at one point in the movie, you turn to your daughter, who accompanied you on the visit, and said, did you notice she seems to be more angry with her mother than she was with her father?

M: Yes, that's how I felt. I felt that by listening and kept saying to me, I believe you, I believe you, that she acknowledged the fact and she accepted the fact that he did what he did. However, she couldn't understand that she was there and she couldn't do anything. That was her question to me.

CONAN: About her mother, that she didn't do anything?

M: And to clear up, she was not her mother - she was not his wife at that time. She was his mistress, and she actually didn't want to know anything. The music she turned on high when they were shooting. You could hear shooting from the villa.

CONAN: And she would pay no attention?

M: And she would just make believe like it doesn't, but I did want to please her and tell her at one - at one time there was a lot of commotion going on in the camp and she came down, she was in the kitchen at the time and she said to us, if I could, I would send you all home, but I can't. And just to please Monika, I understand that she wrote me a letter. In the letter, one sentence really moved me and made the decision to go ahead with it. She said in the very end, Helen, I really appreciate that you coming to see me. I know that it's very hard for you, but it's hard for me as well, but we have to do it for the murdered people. And that really touched me. I felt she's sensitive, and she wants the world to know. As for me, this is my mission, to be able to tell the world what happened. And I'm a live witness.

CONAN: There's another moment in the film when very quickly, you turned to your daughter and said, it was very selfish of him to have a daughter, of course, referring to Amon Goeth.

M: Very much so, very much so, to give a life, to not to think about another human being who will probably find out everything about him. I don't think that he felt guilty in any way. I think he was doing a great job for the country, and he had a embedded hatred. He was exactly what I described. He was a large human being, a tall, big man, but he was a wild animal. There was no way that you could really explain anything to him. If something went wrong, then came the beating, hitting with no mercy whatsoever.

CONAN: We're speaking with Helen Jonas and filmmaker James Moll. His picture "Inheritance" will be screened tonight at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, D.C. It's part of the POV series that's broadcast on PBS and makes its debut next week on many PBS stations around the country. Check local listings. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And James Moll, the word inheritance, your film is in many respects about the sins of the father being visited upon the daughter, and about the trauma of the victims of the Holocaust being visited upon their children, too.

M: That's right. In the film, Helen brings her daughter with her to - when she meets Monika, and so here we have the daughter of a Nazi perpetrator and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor standing together on the ground where this actually took place. So, it's - it was fascinating to me on many levels, and I really didn't know where the documentary would end up and what would happen when these two women would meet. It was very important to me to have the crews stay out of the way as much as possible, filming with long lenses. You know, they were miked so we could hear what they were saying, but we really wanted to give the two of them the opportunity to meet and talk, and we were just flies on the wall.

CONAN: In that meeting, obviously, you know you're being filmed. You know you're being recorded. Yet you seemed very genuine in those moments with Monika.

M: I feel that she's a victim as well. And the purpose of her meeting me is to tell the world as well, the truth. And she - as sad as it was for me to tell her who her father was, I had to tell her the truth. She wanted to know the truth. And I felt very shaken up walking through the villa. It's so different. It was refurnished completely different. However, everything came back to me, and I felt him in the villa, and I was walking through the rooms just looking at my daughter's sad face, and I said I had to be strong for her. And I wanted to be able to tell the world what kind of atrocities and brutalities took place in this camp. And this man was the only one that gave orders who is to live and who is to die.

CONAN: He was God.

M: He was. I think he thought he was more than God because he could control everything. And I felt that I couldn't show an emotion. I was told by him, in my house I don't want to see any sad faces. I couldn't cry. I had to be strong. I had no one to protect me. And I had to learn very fast and somehow, I did. And somehow, I feel that being here and talking about it, I have a mission.

CONAN: In the film, we see his execution, his hanging - botched, first once, then again. And then we see his neck break on the third attempt. That can't have been the first time you saw that film?

M: I saw the premiere of this film. I was invited to the premiere. You know, to me, he was a wild man. I heard his steps, and I shivered. I heard his voice, and I didn't know what the next things will come. And the way he tortured people, the way he killed my very best friend, knowing that he's my friend. And I had to serve him afterwards, and I couldn't show a sad face. This was torture for me. And I don't know - I guess, I had some kind of higher power to protect me because so many times that little gun, that little revolver that he always carried was near my skull. And somehow, I'm still alive. So, I think it's a miracle. And I feel they owe it to all the survivors and all my people that suffered so much to take part of it and meet with Monika. And as hard as it is and it was and still is, I will continue as long as I can because those people that perished so tragically, they have no chance to speak.

CONAN: The story of Helen Jonas's meeting with Monika, the daughter of her torturer, is told in the story in the movie, "Inheritance," which will be broadcast next week as part of the POV series on PBS. Helen Jonas, thank you very much for being with us here today.

M: Thank you.

CONAN: Our thanks also to James Moll, the director and editor of the movie, with us here in 3A. It will be screened tonight at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington D.C. And James, thank you very much for being with us today.

M: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Tomorrow, what the Megan Meier cyber-bullying case means for the rest of it. Could it criminalize fake online profiles? Join us for that. That's tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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