Emotional reunion sweetens documentarys bitter memories

Late in 2003, filmmaker James Moll was putting the finishing touches on an “extra” for a DVD release of “Schindler’s List.”

One photo he wanted to use, of Amon Goeth, the infamous commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, was owned by Goeth’s daughter, Monika Hertwig. So he found her telephone number in Germany and called.

“She was very nice and spoke very good English,” Moll said. “I remember thinking later how presumptuous of me to pick up a phone to call Germany and just assume that whoever answered would speak English.”

Their conversation was pleasant enough, until she stunned him with five simple words:

“I am not my father.”

“I got chills,” Moll recalls. “I said, ‘Of course not. Do you find people judge you based on who your father is?’ She laughed and said, ‘Of course.’ And she said it still affects her today.”

Hertwig, born in 1945, hadn’t known her father; she was told that he died an honorable death in the war. But during an argument, her mother told her, “You are just like your father and you’ll die like him.” It wasn’t until her grandmother explained what that meant that Hertwig discovered her past.

“I’d never thought about the Holocaust from the perspective of the perpetrators and their families. [The Nazis] made decisions that had ramifications for their children and grandchildren.”

What Hertwig revealed to him, Moll felt, would be a compelling subject for a film. Then serendipity made it even better. The result is “Inheritance,” a documentary which airs in December on PBS.

The serendipity: For several years, Hertwig had been trying to arrange a meeting with Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a young Jewish girl who was assigned to work in the Goeth home at Plaszow. But Jonas-Rosenzweig refused the meeting.

Coincidentally, Moll later met Jonas-Rosenzweig at a Shoah Foundation function. He mentioned Monika Hertwig.

“Helen said to me, ‘I have no interest in speaking to [Hertwig]. Just looking at her picture reminds me Amon.’ But at the end of the day, she came over, took my arm and said, ‘I want to talk to you later.'”

At Jonas-Rosenzweig’s request, Hertwig wrote her another letter — and the two arranged the meeting, which becomes a central part of “Inheritance.”

Moll, 45 and raised Catholic, helped found the Shoah Foundation. His official title was founding executive director and he was charged with, among other things, taping the accounts of the survivors.

But this film is different, because at its center was not a victim, but one of the bad guys. But it was a story that had never been told.

The meeting between Hertwig and Jonas-Rosenzweig took place at Plaszow in August 2004. Between other projects, Moll edited nights and weekends at home.

“Inheritance” was shown in a few film festivals, but will now reach a wide audience for the first time.

“Inheritance” will air on KQED Channel 9 in December (time and date to be determined).