There are many women who would be flattered, maybe even enthralled to see a star with the talent and sophisticated good looks of Ralph Fiennes playing their father. Monica Hertwig is not among them. Monica, a stay-at-home caregiver who dotes on her young grandson and goes about her prosaic teutonic existence in a way that makes her appear not unlike any one of a hundred other women-next-door at the supermarket where you do your shopping. The difference is Monika has seen Ralph Fiennes dressed in the uniform her father wore, living in the house her father lived in, and indiscriminately exterminating his fellow humans with no more emotion than a man crushing an insect into the sidewalk.
Monika’s father was Amon Goeth, the SS Commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow, Poland. You know him as the sadistic killer in Steven Spielberg’s heart-wrenching docudrama, Schindler’s List.
If the documentary confined itself to that simple story, a girl who has had to live to adulthood with the burden of her family tree weighing down on her – it would be worth watching. It is better than that, however. And it is better because of Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a tidy, well coifed, upper middle class woman living in an idyllic New Jersey countryside setting, who lived in fear of Amon Goeth for years. As a Jew, a prisoner in the camp, and ultimately as a slave in Goeth’s house, Helen knows better than any living person how cruel, how casual, and how contemptible Amon Goeth was in his day-to-day life as the living god who ruled over his camp with ruthless abandon.
The culmination of this fine story may have come after the cameras stopped rolling. And that’s fine with me. Admittedly, we will never know for sure, but I believe it to be true. After Helen and Monica parted ways and returned to their homes and their otherwise uneventful suburban lives, that is where the magic lies. Because as riveting as their meeting was, as compelling as their visit to the house where one’s father terrified the other so completely – the legacy of that meeting may turn out to be an even more powerful human drama. When one confronts their greatest fear and overcomes it, something wonderful can happen. When two women confront their entirely separate but inextricably linked fears and conquer them individually and collectively – well that’s something that just doesn’t happen very often.
Netflix has this remarkable documentary in their line-up. Consider watching it. Perhaps, consider watching Schindler’s List and this as well. You will see the real story in the eyes of the women who were scarred by the events in Plaszow, and you will see the genius of Spielberg and crew in telling a story that needs to be told in order to have even a shred of a chance of preventing similar atrocities from happening in the future.
We must remember. We must talk about it. We must tell the story whenever and where ever we can. Because it matters. Because it’s true. Because we can.