Leonard Pitts: Living with history’s painful truths

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 8, 2008

She says the only Jew she knew was Jesus. There were no Jews around her in Bad Toetz, the West German village where she was born. No one talked about them. No one spoke about where they had gone or the war in which they disappeared, the war in which, she was told, her father died.
She grew up incurious about him ó she was a year old at the time of his death ó but that changed the day her spiteful mother told her, “You are like your father and you will die like him.”
It turned out her father was a monster named Amon Goethe, and he commanded Plaszow, a forced labor camp in Poland. After the war, he was hanged. Once she knew these things, Monika Hertwig’s uninterest became her obsession. “I wanted to know what happened to the Jews and I wanted to know how my father was involved.”
This is a column about the monster’s daughter and one of the monster’s many victims. And about what happened the day they met.
That day is chronicled in a devastating documentary called “Inheritance,” which airs Dec. 10 on the PBS program “P.O.V.” Hertwig, the monster’s daughter, reached out to Helen Jonas, who, as a teenage girl, was a slave in the monster’s house. After some hesitation ó did she really want to meet the child of the man who hit her, who cursed her, who pushed her down stairs, who shot her boyfriend to death, who had on his hands the blood of untold thousands of Jews? ó Helen Jonas, remarkably, reached back.
If you saw “Schindler’s List,” you remember Ralph Fiennes portrait of Goethe as a preening, sadistic bully who amused himself by gunning down Jews for sport. That film, says Hertwig, made her “sick with the truth.” When she saw Jonas on a German documentary, it became her mission to find her. Eventually, Hertwig sent a letter. I know you are suffering, she wrote. But I am suffering, too.
They meet at Plaszow. It is a tense, fascinating encounter. Hertwig turns away, shuddering with tears. You can see in Jonas’ very body language that she finds it painful to be with the monster’s daughter.
They tour the house where Jonas was a slave to Hertwig’s father. They enter the room where Jonas served refreshments to high-ranking Nazis. Hertwig tries to explain how her mother told her Jews were only killed to prevent the spread of disease in the camp. Jonas becomes impatient with her, even angry, for repeating these excuses and denials. They were killed, she says, because they were Jews, period. And those who survive them, whether the children of victims or of perpetrators, have a responsibility to know this truth and to speak it.
“We just can’t be silent. We can’t push things away.”
Hertwig agrees. “I will learn to live with the truth,” she says.
They say the truth will set you free. But the truth does more. It indicts, it convicts, it rends and shreds excuses, denials and the simple ability to live at peace with the past. The truth is hard. Which is why people often choose instead the soft comfort of lies.
You see this sometimes when talk turns to America’s tortured history of race. People rationalize, justify, rush past the rawness of it while spouting banal platitudes. Because sometimes it’s not easy living with truth.
So you marvel at the moral courage of Hertwig in trying to learn. And of Jonas in helping her. They are not friends, probably never will or could be, but they are linked, tied by an awful past and a determination to bear witness. The monster’s daughter makes it her life’s mission to speak to German children about the crimes her father committed. And the monster’s victim does the same in the United States.
It is not just an act of courage. It is also an act of redemption. And of faith.
As Hertwig puts it, “If you can’t change the past, maybe you can do something for the future.”
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Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. E-mail: lpitts@miamiherald.com.