‘Schindler’ survivor tells story of enslavement
Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig tells a gathering at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County about her experience in a concentration camp and the film that documents her journey to changing her legacy of hatred. Photo by Sid Marshall
July 19, 2010
A rapt crowd of 100 people at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold July 11 heard the riveting story of a Holocaust survivor and watched as her efforts to reconcile the hatred she harbors toward her tormentors unfolded on the screen.
Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig of Monroe Township is the focus of Inheritance: A Legacy of Hatred and the Journey to Change It. The 2009 Emmy Award-winning documentary records her emotionally charged meeting with Monika Hertwig, daughter of Amon Goeth, Nazi leader and commander of the Plaszow concentration camp near Cracow, who enslaved and brutalized Jonas-Rosenzweig physically and emotionally during her internment there.
(Much of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List takes place in Plaszow and features Ralph Fiennes portraying Goeth.)
Jonas-Rosenzweig told the museum gathering she was only 17 when her mother and sisters were taken to Plaszow from their home in nearby Cracow — her father had been killed by the Nazis — and she was assigned to wash windows in the camp.
A German officer approached her soon after her arrival. “He told me, ‘If a Jewish girl is smart enough to clean a window on a sunny day, then she is smart enough to work for me,’” she recalled, and began serving as a maid in his villa at the camp.
She said that at the time she thought such work would be better than the harsh conditions and brutality in the camp, but soon discovered being “enslaved” in the villa held its own horrors.
When she got there, she said, the officer — Goeth — asked her name. When she told him, he responded, “Well I have a Helena already,” referring to another girl who worked as a maid. “Now you are Suzana” — the name of the character based on Jonas-Rosenzweig in Schindler’s List.
An incident that occurred when she began working in the villa first revealed to her Goeth’s nature. He told her to iron his shirt; when it became clear she did not know how, he slapped her across the face.
He said, she recalled, “Girls in Vienna can iron shirts, why can’t you?” When she began to cry, he slapped her again. It was then, she said, that she realized she was not a child anymore and it was time to grow up.
Jonas-Rosenzweig spent two years working for a monster who murdered thousands of Jews and other prisoners; she survived through finding a place on Oskar Schindler’s life-giving list.
According to Inheritance, Hertwig was a baby when her father was executed as a war criminal in 1946. Until she was a teen, she believed he had died a war hero. When she was 13, during an argument, her mother told her that she was like her father and would most likely come to a similar fate. And when Hertwig saw the disturbing portrayal of her father in Schindler’s List in 1993, she began searching for ways to deal with the guilt she felt upon learning of her father’s crimes.
She arranged to meet with Jonas-Rosenzweig through an associate of Spielberg’s; Inheritance documents the first meeting of the women and their efforts to cope with their hatred, on the one hand, and guilt, on the other.
Before the screening, museum president Michael Steinhorn prepared the audience for the incredible story they were about to witness.
“Helen is a shining example to those of us who want to pass on Jewish pride,” he said, adding that he recognized her tremendous courage in being so open about her tragic past.
Jonas-Rosenzweig married Joseph Jonas in 1946 at a displaced persons’ camp in Austria. The following year, they came to the United States and together raised three children until his death in 1980. Ten years later, she married Henry Rosenzweig.
Active with a number of organizations, including those that help families in Israel, she often speaks at colleges, high schools, and Jewish groups to promote tolerance and acceptance.
Barbara Michaels, a museum trustee, said that when Jonas-Rosenzweig first saw the museum, she told her friend she wanted to share her life story with everyone who entered.
Jonas-Rosenzweig told NJJN that relating her story “is not an easy task, but I feel like I am doing what the heart is telling me to do. Something like this can happen again if people don’t recognize hatred, and we need to learn from the horrible lessons of the past.”