Nazis daughter inherits grief and guilt in powerful doc

Monika Hertwig is as tortured a soul as you’re likely to meet. She’s saddled with all the confusion and guilt of the typical Holocaust survivor — even though she was born in 1945.

The opening half-hour of the unflinching “Inheritance” is largely devoted to Hertwig’s story, and it will be the cold viewer indeed whose heart does not go out to this woman still futilely trying to reconcile her personal story with the black page of history.

But there’s a twist that inevitably offsets one’s natural sympathy: Hertwig is the daughter of Amon Goeth, the brutal commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp outside Krakow who was immortalized by Ralph Fiennes as the inhuman villain of “Schindler’s List.”

“Inheritance,” which airs Tuesday, Dec. 16 on KQED as part of the PBS “P.O.V.” documentary series, is not a satisfying film, largely because it raises questions that don’t have tidy, satisfying answers. The 2006 documentary is worth seeing, however, as a rare and haunted depiction of the responsibility and obligations of the children of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

They can help educate younger generations, to be sure. But can they — or should they — be part of the grieving and healing process that many survivors of the camps wrestle with to this day?

Hertwig’s opposite, in a manner of speaking, is Helene Jonas. A young teenager when she was transported from Krakow to Plaszow, Jonas was singled out by Goeth (along with another Jewish girl) to work and live in his villa outside the camp.

This was hardly a plum assignment, Jonas recounts, although ultimately it might have meant the difference between life and death. But Goeth regularly beat and tormented her, to the point that the mere sound of his footsteps was enough to terrify her.

Jonas married another survivor after the war, moved to the States and raised a family in New Jersey. But as revealed late in “Inheritance,” they never fully escaped the shadow of the Holocaust.

Hertwig, for her part, was an infant when Polish authorities hung Goeth in 1946 (director James Moll includes footage of the execution, further complicating our emotional response), and she’s strived for years to glean details about the father she never knew and can’t fathom. When she saw Jonas interviewed a few years ago in a documentary made for German television, she realized there was someone still living who could provide facts and insight, no matter how painful they might be.

The second half of “Inheritance” consists of Hertwig and Jonas’ painfully awkward rendezvous at the memorial plaque at Plaszow. There’s literally too much emotion for the women to deal with, begging the question of why Jonas — returning for the first time in 60 years to her hometown and the camp — didn’t propose meeting at a neutral Krakow café.

Their interaction is at frustrating cross-purposes, with Jonas releasing her grief, anger and suffering while Hertwig tries to empathize with and own up to experiences she can’t truly imagine.

Moll, whose powerful Oscar-winning doc “The Last Days” excavated the relatively unknown history of the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary, is well aware that he’s taken on an open-ended story. His primary goal isn’t education or even remembrance, as in his earlier film, but provoking debate.

While we’ve heard Holocaust testimonies similar to Jonas’, Hertwig’s point of view is unique. Her agony is sufficient to convince us that the sins of the fathers shouldn’t be visited on their children, even when the fathers are Nazi mass murderers.

“Inheritance” airs 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16 on KQED channel 9.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.