During a visit with the woman I consider a second mother, I asked what she had been doing that summer for fun. “Reading books about the Holocaust,” was her response. My own mother had a different approach to being a member of the Holocaust generation of Jews: she boycotted all German merchandise, from Mercedes sedans to Braun coffeemakers. Never mind that the war had been over for 25 years by that point; shame to the Jew who supported Them.
It is difficult being from the generation after the Holocaust generation. When asked about my religious upbringing, I tend to tell people that I was raised as a Jew-Without-a-Clue. That is, I was brought up in relative obliviousness to the religious tenets of the faith. I was, however, deeply indoctrinated into the prevalent cultural belief: Remember what They did to us and never forget Their evil. What makes this problematic is being next-gen Us, interacting with next-gen Them. While there is validity in remembering the past so it isn’t repeated, there is also a profound qualm in carrying the sins of the parents over to the children. I know that the Germany of my present — even the one from my childhood — is not the one that killed millions of us. Yet I can’t help but have that sick feeling. As Bette Midler said as she described being in Germany during her first European tour: “Get me the fuck out of here!”
As part of its P.O.V. series of documentaries, PBS presents this Wednesday an extraordinary film called Inheritance. It focuses, for 50 percent of its dual view, on Monika Hertwig, who has the lanky appearance of an aging, Germanic Laura Dern. We soon learn that this gentle, sad woman is the daughter of Amon Goeth, the brutal Nazi commandant of Plaszow concentration camp in Poland (portrayed in the film Schindler’s List by Ralph Fiennes). Central to Inheritance is Monika’s struggle to reconcile her father’s crimes and her mother’s crimes of avoidance, and to find absolution for a guilt she never caused yet unavoidably owns.
The second focus of the film is Helen Jonas, a lovely and gracious Holocaust survivor who was the housemaid-cum-slave of Monika’s father during the atrocities. With Monika’s earnest beseeching, Helen agrees to meet her in Poland, at the site of her abuse. Helen hopes it will bring closure; Monika seems unsure whether she deserves it.
It is easy, as well as familiar terrain, to place one’s sympathy with Helen, and I admit that my emotions ran quite toward her, particularly during a last-reel share that is undeniably personal yet speaks for millions. What sets this documentary apart, moves it into new territory, is the parallel inclusion of the child of the “perpetrator” (as Amon Goeth is described when a dispassionate voice is necessary). Sympathy for Monika is not as easily reconciled, though logically we realize that there is no good reason to withhold it. And Monika herself is a walking example of this ambivalence, struggling not to loathe herself for her genetics as she admits that she felt nothing but disgust for the children of other Nazis.
The scenes between these two women, along with Helen’s accompanying American daughter, are unforgettable, particularly those within Goeth’s house. There are four archetypes onscreen here: the perpetrator, the victim and the children of each. It is a fascinating and deeply human interaction that is captured among them, and we are invited to tap into any or all of those within ourselves.
Monika and her husband are raising their 4-year-old grandson, David, whose mother is out of the picture due to drug addiction. Though not discussed, there is a Nazi elephant in the living room regarding what subliminal shame and torment made a straight-line path from Monika’s father to her daughter. Whatever it is, Monika has vowed not to carry it through to David and his generation. In one memorable confrontation between Helen and Monika, Helen also vehemently insists that the stories and denials of the past should cease, and that only truth should be spoken from this point forward.
Inheritance tells aspects of the truth that we haven’t looked at before. I can’t vouch for how visceral the experience is for a non-Jew, but my suspicion is that everyone has felt like the victim or the victimizer, either directly or in trickle-down. Coming to terms with these shadow feelings is, perhaps, the source of our freedom; it is a freedom that many of us are not even aware we are surviving without.
E-mail Scott Patrick Wagner at email@example.com.
Airing on PBS, Thurs., Dec. 18, at 9 p.m. Check local listings to confirm.
Scott’s blog, “Multiple Person-ality,” can be found at blog.scottpatrickwagner.com