Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. So much has been written about the victims of the Nazi regime. But what if you discovered that you were related to one of its most notorious perpetrators?
That was the case for author, Jennifer Teege, as she so poignantly strives to extricate her own identity from that of a monster through a series of bizarre coincidences that are far too numerous to attribute to anything but fate. Journalist, Nikola Sellmair contributes a fascinating backstory to each chapter of Teege’s riveting memoir, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.
Left in an orphanage in the care of nuns, at four-weeks-old in Hamburg, Germany, then adopted at age seven, Teege had some contact with her birth mother and grandmother as a child. In fact, she had fond memories of visiting her grandmother. However, after age 7, she would not see her birth mother again until she was twenty-one.
“Many adoptees imagine that their birth parents were famous,” says Teege, 45, on the phone from Atlanta, one of many stopovers on her North American book tour. Formerly an advertising executive, she has been on a seven year quest to discover her true identity then candidly write about it. “I always wanted transparency -to know the truth and face it.”
“I knew my mother had a love affair with my birth father who is Nigerian and I used to imagine he was an African king, riding on an elephant. But on my mother’s side there was silence even though the whole world knew who my grandfather was.”
Teege, while in her 20s and her past still shrouded in secrecy, studied in Paris at the Sorbonne where she met an Israeli student, Noa. Ironically, Teege moved to Israel for almost five years, making close friends there and working at the Goethe Institute reading to the elderly, many of whom she knew were Holocaust survivors. She attended Tel Aviv University and earned her degree in Middle Eastern and African Studies. “But I always had this inner feeling that something was wrong, ” admits Teege, who speaks Hebrew fluently.
“Having suffered from depression all my life,” she likens her search through the help of therapy, “to finding the missing frame around so many puzzle pieces,” as she describes trying to put together her past in order to move forward.
” Guilt can’t be inherited but feelings of guilt can”
In August, 2008, Jennifer Teege was standing in the library in central Hamburg, looking for something on depression in the Psychology department. Out of thousands of books, her eye caught sight of a red cover with a black and white photograph that looked slightly familiar. The spine read: I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? by Matthias Kessler and the subtitle, The Life Story of Monika Göeth, Daughter of the Concentration Camp Commandant from Schindler’s List.”
Flipping through the book’s photographs, she recognized her birth mother and grandmother, Ruth Irene Kalder. She even remembers as a child writing the name Jennifer Göeth in her schoolbooks. What she learned next would leave her mentally and physically numb for months.
Teege’s grandfather was none other than Amon Göeth, known as the “Butcher of Plaszow” and drinking buddy of Oscar Schindler, who was executed in Poland for crimes against humanity in 1946. Portrayed by British actor, Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, no one who watches the film can forget the chilling scenes of him shooting Jews from his balcony – for pleasure. Furthermore, it was Oscar Schindler who introduced Ruth to Amon Göeth, where she lived as his mistress (though she took his last name,) in a villa beside the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland. She always considered him “a war hero” and “thought he looked like Clark Gable,” writes Teege. But before she committed suicide in 1983, Ruth told her daughter Monika, that “he was not a war hero but tortured and killed people.” “I should have done more,” Ruth admitted.
Nazi commandant, Amon Göeth was convicted of war crimes in 1946. He had to be hung three times before he actually died. Göeth’s last words were “Heil Hitler.”
Just hours after Teege took the book home on that same day in 2008, German television aired a PBS documentary called Inheritance in which the filmmaker had taken Teege’s birth mother Monika and Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a Jewish maid subjected to Amon Göeth’s sadistic cruelty, back to Plaszow. In the documentary, Monika never mentions she has a daughter, Jennifer.
“How much did my grandmother know? Where was her compassion? “
“After I found the book, all I wanted to do was shout at her and tell her how disappointed I was…. looking at her life now, I feel sorry for her. My anger has abated a little,” Teege writes.
Teege believes unequivocally that should she ever have met Amon Göeth he would have killed her for merely not fitting the Aryan profile and hence the disturbing title, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me. She writes: “When I look in the mirror I see two faces, mine and his. And a third, my mother’s.” “But today, I am not afraid of him,” she says with conviction. “We are two very different people.”
Her husband encouraged Teege to go and confront her birth mother. But first she had to go to Plaszow and confront the ghosts herself.
When Teege finally has her first meeting with Monika, she writes: “I can see the path she has taken. ” “Emotionally she hit rock bottom over and over again.” ” She mentions her mother and Amon Göeth again and again…”I want to shake my mother – stop talking about them. What about you and me?”
Later Teege writes: “Seeing it like this makes it easier for me. My mother didn’t give me away because there was something wrong with me, but because she had her hands full simply dealing with her own life.”
She was very worried that her Israeli friends would hate her if she confessed the truth about her grandfather and cut-off all communication with them for a long time. Teege’s husband again urged her to just tell them the truth and when Teege told them the story, “they cried with me,” she so touchingly writes.
I ask Teege, now that she has finally put all the puzzle pieces together, what will she do differently with her own children?
“My mother never told me my grandfather was a Nazi. She thought if I didn’t know, it would be easier for me and of course the opposite was true. I’ve already told my sons a little but they’re still too young to see Schindler’s List. As they get older, of course I will tell them the full story of our shared history and we will always talk openly about it.”
TOP PHOTO: (left) Amon Göeth The Butcher of Plaszow,” arrested for war crimes August 29, 1945. (right) Jennifer Teege and cover of My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me. Book cover photo: Thorsten Wulff