Jennifer Teege’s memoir “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me” recounts the German author’s struggle to come to terms with the fact that she, a black woman, was the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the concentration camp in “Schindler’s List.”
“My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past”
by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair
The Experiment, 221 pp., $24.95
Imagine Jennifer Teege’s surprise when on a visit to the library in her hometown of Hamburg, Germany, she comes across a memoir written by her estranged mother, who gave her up for adoption when Teege was 7 and who she hasn’t heard from in years.
Now imagine Teege’s heart sinking upon reading the book’s horrifying title: “I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I?: The Life Story of Monika Goeth, Daughter of the Concentration Commandant from ‘Schindler’s List.’ ”
It is almost too much for Teege, a 30-something advertising professional, wife and mother who lived in Israel for four years and has Jewish Israelis among her dearest friends, to process.
The author of “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me” will discuss her book at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 19, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
How could this be? How could she, the brown-skinned daughter of a white woman from Germany and a black man from Nigeria, a woman with personal ties to Israel, be related to the notorious Amon Goethe, the Nazi war criminal depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film who shot imprisoned Jews for sport at the camp he supervised at Plaszow in Poland?
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Teege sets about researching her mysterious past and putting herself back together after the emotionally devastating revelation at the Hamburg library. The result of this unenviable personal journey is her own courageous memoir, “My Grandfather would have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.”
Most of us experience the terror of the Holocaust through history books, news footage and films like Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie, in which Ralph Fiennes plays Goeth and Liam Neeson plays industrialist Oskar Schindler, who helps save 1,200 Jews from the gas chambers.
Suddenly for Teege, the connection to this darkest chapter in 20th-century history, one that ultimately saw 6 million Jews murdered by Nazi forces, is all-too-real. The “Butcher of Plaszow,” the bigot who had waltz music played to cover up the cries of parents as their children were herded onto trucks headed for Auschwitz, is her flesh and blood.
The beautiful, stylish Ruth Irene Kalder, the beloved grandmother Teege got to know as a child, was his mistress at the camp.
The couple’s daughter Monika, Teege’s biological mother, had kept all of these details a secret most of her life and eventually disappeared from Teege’s world altogether.
In the memoir, Teege details her complicated relationship to her adoptive family and her attempts to reconnect with the frustratingly distant Monika, in hopes of building a new, closer mother-daughter bond. She tracks down her Nigerian-German biological father. And she visits Holocaust sites in Poland to deepen her understanding of Jewish suffering.
Throughout, Teege tries to understand how the maternal grandmother she had adored as a child could have been so oblivious to what was going on at Plaszow, as she claimed decades later in interviews before ultimately committing suicide in 1983. The house she and Amon shared was only yards from the camp’s crowded barracks.
Cowritten with German journalist Nikola Sellmair, whose contextual, immensely useful reportage is interspersed with more personal reflections written by Teege, the memoir invites rereading to fully absorb Teege’s painful search for answers, for a sense of identity and belonging and for inner peace.
Readers won’t help but feel for her. Teege discovers, however, that history’s shattering truths have the potential to make us more whole.
“The knowledge shocked me, but it also released me,” she writes.
But while Teege finds release in knowing who she came from, she also knows that the awful history she’s tied to must not be forgotten.