Hullo ma wee blog,
I have an incredibly positive view of the generations that have gone before me in my family. To me it's something completely natural, born in love and nurtured through my childhood. I daresay some of it is incorrect, seen through the rose tinted glasses of others and myself over time. But it's important to me; helps keep me grounded knowing that I was secure in something good that has continuity from the past and continues today and onwards into the future.
I was made to reflect on that recently when I was watching a program on the BBC I-player. It was a documentary called "My father, the Nazi commandant" which told the story of a woman now in her mid-sixties who has had to come to terms and live with the realisation that her back story was false and that what she had accepted in her childish innocence was based on lies, half-truths, and denial. That would be hard enough for anyone to do but it was made more difficult because this woman had to do it in public after she was confronted with the story of her father's involvement in the mass murder of Polish Jews during World War II. The story was made famous in a film by Steven Spielberg called Schindler's list. Her father was Amon Goethe, the SS commandant of concentration camp Placzow in Kraków. The film was one whose chilling impact affected a generation of moviegoers and rightly earned a host of Oscars for its cast and crew. But a movie, no matter how chilling, is a fiction – an interpretation created for a specific purpose. For Monika, it forced her to confront and try to come to terms with a story in which she had been given a very different account of her father’s role. This would be difficult for anybody, but how much more difficult would it be to have to do this in an environment where there was enormous public interest and emotion about the story and the people involved and where the story concerned such inhumanity.
Monica had been born in 1945. She never met her father. Her mother was Goethe’s lover and as such was portrayed in the film, living with him in complacent luxury in the concentration camp while murder and brutality was the norm for its Jewish prisoners. By the time Monika was born her father was in a mental institution and her mother had returned home to her family to give birth. After the end of hostilities, her father was found in the mental institution and was later tried and executed for war crimes in 1946. Her mother always denied his involvement and ignored or perhaps even approved of the barbarity and the scale of the atrocities Goethe had committed and described him to her daughter only as a loyal soldier serving his country who had died during the war. This was the story that Monica grew up with and accepted without question for a large part of her childhood. It wasn't until she was older she came to realise that there was a great deal of tension between her mother and grandmother who shared her upbringing. This tension revolved around the story of Monika's birth and the circumstances that led to it and it didn't take long for the little girl to begin to ask questions about her father. Probably due to guilt and outright denial she was never given an honest picture of the man who was her father and in those days, in post-war Germany, people simply did not ask or talk about such things. Her father was just one of millions who had died serving his country and the young girl was told that terrible lies had been told about her father. Deliberately deceived by her mother, the child Monika ultimately came to accept that and it became part of the fabric of her being until confronted anew with the story told by Spielberg.
I can only imagine the guilt, anxiety, and turmoil that finding out a more accurate version of her fathers, and therefore her, story under those circumstances would bring and how difficult it must have been to even try to deal with that in the glare of publicity that undoubtedly surrounded her at that time. She had after all been brought up to love her father's memory and perhaps even idolised him in his absence. The impacts of finding that her existence and place in the world was based on a foundation of denial, lies and deliberate misrepresentation around such large scale human tragedy must have been immense and I have no idea how I would have coped with it. Over time, it seemed from the documentary, she did come to terms in some ways but of course in others she continued to struggle to understand and cope with the reality of her family history.
The documentary itself followed Monika, who had identified a survivor from the camp with detailed knowledge of her father as she had served as a child servant in the house of the commandant on camp during the time that her mother and a father had been together there. This woman, now living in America, agreed to an exchange of letters and ultimately agreed to take part in a filmed documentary of their meeting while they both visited the site of the camp. This would be the first time that Monika had seen the place – albeit now completely changed – where her father had committed the atrocities. It was also the first time the survivor had returned and she came accompanied by her daughter for support.
The documentary was careful to ensure that they did not interfere in the burgeoning understanding or lack of understanding and empathy from either party and in doing so I felt it left both these women, struggling with their own private demons, without much obvious support. The two ladies met for the very first time in front of a memorial to those who had died during the camps existence. It was clear to me that Monika struggled emotionally when confronted with the reality of being there. The documentary continued with a tour of the house overlooking the camp which had been occupied by Goethe while at the camp. The two women were shown walking through the rooms together, each of confronting uncomfortable situations and thoughts. The camp survivor particularly described in harrowing detail the experiences she had suffered, including beatings, at the hands of Monika's father. She also described each room as it had been at the time and the kind of activities that took place; an opulent lifestyle in the midst of disgraceful misery. The lady was visibly greatly upset when she described the view from what had been her bedroom onto the roadway where each day her fellow prisoners were marched to work or to execution and also when the two women visited the balcony of Goethe’s lounge, from where each morning he would shoot one or two prisoners down in the camp. It was heartbreaking to consider the impact of such realities onto these two women, both of whom would always carry a terrible legacy with them.
I felt particularly sorry for Monika in one scene where she tried to describe how her father had been described to her as a child to this lady who had been through so much at his hands. It was clear to me that she was simply trying to describe how she had been misled and wanted the lady to understand that this had had an impact on her as a human being, and the kind of feelings of regret and guilt and shame that she felt, especially as she had been brought up to love her father. It was unfortunate that because of the emotional trauma of the meeting, especially in that place, that the lady could not understand why this woman had any shred of feeling other than disgust and hatred.
The documentary really affected me and made me think about how complicated, how unfair and obscene life can be and how a dreadful legacy canseep down through the years to touch people who deserve better in so many ways. While both women have families and lives and a future ahead of them, their pasts have been terribly marked in this entwined story of people generations,continents and experiences apart. It's reaffirmed to me that history is people's lives and the connection with and understanding of our own personal history is important if we are to have any chance of understanding our place in the world and indeed, of having any hope of coping with what life may throw at us.
See you later.