Holocaust survivor Marcel Reich-Ranicki: “Of course Hitler was a human being. What else would he have been? An elephant?”

Over the weekend, I read My GrandFather Would Have Shot Me. It’s a book that has real significance as a historical document. It’s rewarding if you have the emotional energy to reflect on the Holocaust and cry. This post is an exercise in doing that. The book is about the legacy of Amon Goeth and his mistress:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnQEishiYg0

The author’s grandparents. That’s just a movie, though.  We should let eyewitnesses give the definitive accounts, not Steven Spielberg.  This is Amon Goeth’s house slave. The part that’s relevant for this post starts around 1:01:00 and ends around 1:17:00 (I didn’t watch all 3.5 hours, and I do feel guilty):

Here’s grandma, petting the dog that mauls people to death:

Ruth_irene_kalder

The thing that makes the book so interesting is that you see how 3 generations of women cope with these things or not. This is how the grandmother became Goeth’s mistress in the first place:

Ruth Irene Kalder also claimed that she was supposed to flirt with Amon Goeth in order to cement his good relationship with Oskar Schindler, who relied on Jewish laborers sourced from Goeth’s camp. “My job as the pretty secretary was to win over his heart so that he would continue to provide us with these workers, since the Jews were now under the control of the camp commandant.”

Later, she said “It was a wonderful time. My Amon was king, I was his queen. Who wouldn’t have relished that?”

Amon Goeth and his girlfriend especially enjoyed having the Rosner brothers, Jewish musicians from the camp, perform for them. On these occasions, Hermann and Poldek Rosner would swap their prison clothes for elegant suits and play the violin and the accordion for Goeth and his guests. And Ruth Irene Kalder, dressed in fine clothes from Krakow shops, would play the lady of the house.

Ruth Irene Kalder later told her daugther Monika that she once intervened when Goeth was threatening to beat one of the maids with a bull pizzle–a dried bull’s penis that was used as a flogging tool in the concentration camps. In the ensuing struggle, Amon ended up hitting Ruth, which he felt awful about. He came close to tears, she said, and apologized over and over, and after that he never again used a bull pizzle in the house. Ruth Irene also told her daugher another grotesque anecdote: She once threatened not to sleep with Goeth anymore “if he didn’t stop shooting at the Jews.” Apparently it worked…

Helen Hirsch also reported that the inebriated Goeth once tried to sexually assault her. Ruth Irene Kalder heard her cries and came running to her rescue. Goeth then let her go.

There are a number of eyewitnesses who remember that Ruth Irene Kalder tried to exert a moderating influence on Amon Goethe’s behavior. She is said to have taken a stand for individual prisoners and to have prevented the torture and shooting of a number of inmates. In her presence, Amon Goeth is said to have been more restrained and mild-mannered. In another example, according to contemporary witnesses, she once called Goeth away from the parade ground while he was having prisoners whipped. Ruth Irene Kalder, however, would later claim that she never set foot in the camp.

She also hit her daughter for asking too many questions and defended Goeth to the grave.

Shortly before her death, Rush Irene Goeth showed her first signs of remorse. She told her daughter Monika: “I should have done more to help. Maybe my illness is God’s punishment for not doing enough.”

On January 29, 1983, the day after her interview with Jon Blair, Ruth Irene Goeth took an overdose of sleeping pills…She had first spoken of taking her own life months before the recording session.

In her suicide note to her daughter, Ruth Irene Goeth wrote

Dear Monika…please forgive me for all the mistakes I’ve made…I am leaving. I am a wreck. A burden to myself and everybody else. It is so hard to be locked up with this illness all by myself. I want to go to sleep and never wake up again. Everywhere I look, fear is staring back at me. Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision, but this life, being chained to the couch [emphysema], is dreadful. Take care. Don’t be so hard all the time. I have been so desperate. My life would have been one long illness…Remember me well…you didn’t make it easy for me either. But I have always loved you as you love your own child. Your mother.

Not a single word about her time with Amon Goeth.

She was an extremely complicated person:

She voted for the socialist SPD party and was a fan of the politician Willy Brandt.

My grandmother was very liberal for her time: For a while she shared her flat with a transvestite called Lulu and went out on the town with him and his gay friends. My parents met when one of my father’s friends, also African, was living as a lodger in my grandmother’s house. Having an African man living in your house was far from normal in Munich in the 1960s and ’70s. She was no racist.

Confirming how abnormal that would’ve been, I’m told that my own grandmother personally went to city hall, hoping they could do something to prevent my parents’ marriage. For their part, the Army guys opposed it, too.

The descendants of perpetrators are often accused of deluding themselves by constructing a psychological framework to help them deal with their ancestors’ terrible crimes and to save the image of a good father or a good grandmother. Allegedly, they convince themselves that the offending relative was just acting on orders, that others committed atrocities of even greater magnitude. The descendants are said to cling to a fantasy that the culprit repented at the last minute.

I don’t think this is true. I did wonder whether Amon Goeth might have eventually regretted his actions, but not in order to exonerate him–and therefore myself. It was much more became I am interested from a psychological point of view, and because I see Amon Goeth as a human being after all. It is in our nature to have compassion.

My grandfather did not repent in the end; why else would he have raised his arm in a Hitler salute at the gallows? My grandmother never really repented either. She never really saw the victims; she walked through life with her eyes closed.

Nonetheless, I still feel close to my grandmother. I will not try to justify the fact; I won’t explain it either. That’s just the way it is.

When I was a little girl, she made me feel that I wasn’t alone. I will always remember her for that.

Her mom is significantly worse off:

When Monika was six months old, her mother was walking her in her baby carriage when a man suddenly attacked the carriage and stabbed the baby with a knife. Monika needed an operation; she was left with a scar on her neck. Ruth Irene Kalder assumed it must have been a former inmate of Płaszów who tried to kill her daughter.

When Monika was ten months old, her father was hanged in Krakow.

Filmmakers introduced Monika and Helen Rosenzweig (from above):

That makes it seem way smoother than what actually happened:

Their meeting is marked with misunderstandings, with Monika still repeating the phrases she grew up with: She explains to Helen Rosenzweig that Amon Goeth only shot Jews because they spread infectious diseases. Rolen Rosenzweig is shocked. She interrupts Monika Goeth and asks: “Monika, please stop, stop right now.” The film, Inheritance, first aired on German television in 2008, the day after Jennifer Teege found the book about her mother.

Monika Goeth later regretted her demeanor in James Moll’s film. “I would never try to defend Amon again. I would just be quiet and listen to Helen.”

Monika Goeth earned her high school diploma in her mid-forties; later she gained her Latin proficiency certificate and studied ancient Hebrew. She enjoys listening to Israeli music and has read almost all the standard works on the Holocaust. She is nearly 70 now, but she is still fighting the shadows of the past, every day.

There’s a very interesting point about inherited guilt:

Bettina Goering, however, great-niece of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s chief of the Luftwaffe, chose to be sterilized so that she would not “create another monster, not produce any more Goerings.” Historian Tanja Hetzer says that, in interviews with Nazi descendants, she has learned of other men and women who chose sterilization or childlessness. “In this way, the Nazi ideology of ‘worthy and worthless’ life is propagated in the second and third generation and is, in an auto-aggressive way, directed toward their own offspring: They don’t feel worthy to pass on their genes,” Hetzer observes.

Finally, an interview where Jennifer Teege describes how it affected her to discover all this and deal with daily life. She strongly recommends against family secrets:

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