Jennifer Teege says she’s come to believe in a kind of fate. How else to account for the day eight years ago when, at the age of 38, she chose a book randomly from the shelves of her local public library in Hamburg and discovered her close family ties to a figure of legendary evil?
To that point, her life had been marked by struggles to belong. Because Teege’s birth father was Nigerian, her skin colour meant she’d stood out from friends and classmates during her childhood years in Munich.
“Growing up in Germany as a biracial girl was not very common,” Teege recalls for the Georgia Straight in warm, finely inflected English, speaking by phone from her home in Hamburg. “I was integrating well because I spoke German—I mean, it’s my mother tongue and I don’t have an accent. So somehow I was part of it, but somehow I wasn’t.”
Added to this was the confusion she often felt while being raised in the family that had adopted her after she’d spent her earliest years in an orphanage, still in contact with members of her birth family.
“I wasn’t adopted as a baby, so I always knew that I had a biological family,” she explains. “I knew my mother; I knew my grandmother. And only when I was seven years old were the ties cut. So it was a strange situation. I think I was always someone who was living in between two different worlds.”
Still, among her loving adoptive parents and two brothers she had grown into a buoyant, outgoing woman who travelled widely and spent five years studying in Israel. When she returned to Germany, she got married and had two sons of her own. She enjoyed her job in an advertising agency. Despite bouts of sadness and depression, she was settled. She knew who she was.
Until that August day in Hamburg’s central library. The volume in Teege’s hand was titled I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I?. Its contents, she realized in growing shock, were based on a long interview with her birth mother, grappling with the deeds and legacy of the woman’s father—Teege’s biological grandfather: Amon Goeth, commandant of the Nazi concentration camp Płaszów, a man known for murderous sadism in his treatment of prisoners.
In her short, gripping, and inspiring memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me (written with journalist Nikola Sellmair), Teege recounts her reeling emotions as she confronted this brutal family secret, beginning with the fact that the unrepentant war criminal to whom she was now, suddenly, connected by blood was the same one portrayed by Ralph Fiennes as the incarnation of psychopathic cruelty in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.
What follows is a document of an agonizing internal conflict over personal identity and the question of inherited guilt, carried out in the long shadow of some of history’s worst crimes. Crucially, Teege says now, this process meant abandoning the widespread and ultimately reassuring sense that Nazism was a kind of epidemic of demonism, rather than the work of otherwise ordinary human beings.
This was “very, very important, especially because most people only know Amon Goeth through the movie,” she says. “The problem that I have is that when you talk about someone who is evil, who is a monster, it somehow implies that it is something that is laid upon him. And it’s not true, because when you do something evil, it’s a decision—you decide who you want to be and you decide what you do. So it’s not that he’s a monster and so forth, but it was his decision how he wanted to live. And therefore, actually, in the end he was convicted as a war criminal because he was responsible for what he did.”
The tangle of human nature was especially deep in the case of her grandmother, whom Teege remembered as a caring, easygoing woman who displayed no racism toward the lodgers she took in later in life, and especially toward Teege herself. How to reconcile these memories with the woman who had once lived comfortably next to the fences of Płaszów and who spoke only in adoring terms of a charming late husband?
“If you look at my grandmother, it is more complex,” Teege observes. “She wasn’t convicted after the war—I do believe that she was guilty, but in a legal sense she wasn’t convicted. So she was standing more for all these shades that a person has within himself.
“It was something that was difficult for me to grasp,” she adds, “how she could have had these two different faces.”
It took years of painful therapy and introspection for Teege to leave behind the early torments of her discovery, when she searched the mirror in panic for any physical resemblance to her grandfather. Eventually, she arrived at the knowledge that “there’s no Nazi gene.”
Even the lifelong depression began to lift when she came to see it as the symptom of a poisonous secret radiating shame and fear, passed down through generations and weighing on her psyche even before she knew of any connection to Amon Goeth. Sharing her story, particularly with her close Israeli friends and with students learning about the Holocaust, has brought a profound sense of freedom.
“I’ve had events with survivors, people who’ve been in Płaszów,” she says. “And if I meet up with them, if I see how they react, how important it is for them to be around me, how much they want to meet me, how happy they finally are when they see that the line did not repeat itself, and when they do hug me or when they are so open, at a moment like this I feel truly blessed. I think it was meant to be. It was something I needed to find out. So I’m really happy, because if I didn’t find out, I would also never be able to find my true identity.…I somehow do know what my purpose in life is.”
Jennifer Teege discusses My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me in a special presentation by the Chutzpah Festival, on Saturday (April 2) at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre.