It was an ordinary Sunday in Hamburg, Germany, when Jennifer Teege suffered a shock that split her life in two: before and after. That the event was triggered at her local library — which the then 28-year-old considered “a sanctuary” for its concentrated silence, quiet footsteps and muffled sound of turning pages — only added irony to injury.
It was 2006, and the married mother of two was browsing titles in the psychology section when a red book jacket caught her eye. Its title, I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? intrigued her. The small picture of a woman on the cover also struck a chord. When Teege scanned the volume, the biographical details that emerged matched those of her biological family. She soon realized was holding a book about her birth mother, Monika Hertwig (formerly Monika Goeth); maternal grandmother, Ruth Irene Kalder; and maternal grandfather, Amon Goeth, the notorious commandant of Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp who was hanged in 1946 for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Coincidentally, Inheritance, a PBS documentary about the spoils of Goeth’s sociopathy, would air for the first time on German television just 13 hours later. As Teege watched the film — which chronicled the first-time meeting between her mother and a Holocaust survivor named Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, once Goeth’s maid and victim of his relentless barbarism — there was no escaping the truth about the man depicted by actor Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
“In his house, at his mercy,” recalled Jonas-Rosenzweig, “I lost all fear of death. It was like living under the gallows, 24 hours a day.”
The revelation that a family member was a mass murderer would devastate even the soundest emotional architecture. But the stakes were even higher for Teege, who had been placed in a Catholic orphanage when she was four weeks old by her German mother and Nigerian father. Though her father had asked to have his mother raise the baby in Nigeria, Hertwig denied his request. The child was given up for adoption when she was 3 and fostered by a family for four years before they adopted her.
Teege has written a memoir, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past (Experiment, 240 pages), and will appear at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta in partnership with Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company on November 19. Ticket-holders are invited to screen Inheritance, free of charge prior to the book talk.
Co-written by Nikola Sellmair, a reporter at Germany’s Stern magazine, Grandfather weaves Teege’s voice with that of a series of contributors — including her birth mother, adoptive family, friends, Holocaust scholars, historians and therapists – who lend context to the conspiracy of shame that has muted the victims and perpetrators of genocide, as well as their progeny, for nearly eight decades. “Both are bound by silence and the desire to forget,” says Teege, when reached at her home in Hamburg via Skype.
Her conviction is buttressed by a scene in Inheritance, when Hertwig recalls how she had no reason to question her mother’s explanation of how Goeth had perished. “Like millions of men, he died for his country.” Compounding that lie, she recalls, was a wider society where “nobody in Germany wanted to talk about the Second World War. People said, ‘We had trouble enough, and misery enough and now we want to live!’”
Among victims’ families, the dynamic was somewhat different. Most didn’t dare ask their elders what really happened for fear of opening old wounds and re-traumatizing loved ones. “One might say they respect the silence of the survivors,” explains Teege.
Whatever the impetus for withholding the truth, the toxicity of secrets can have devastating consequences. In Teege’s case, her disconnection from blood relatives left her prone to deep depression and a sense that something was missing. An avid puzzler, she likens the challenge of seeking integrity to a trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle without first constructing a frame. Hertwig’s choice to maintain sporadic contact with her daughter only intensified the child’s sense of abandonment, as did the fact that Teege’s very existence was never acknowledged in I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I?
Questions about identity, guilt, shame, empathy, hope and reconciliation are examined closely in My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me. The human capacity for duality, particularly as it pertains to Kalder, is also addressed.
Before Teege’s adoption was formalized, she would spend weekends with her birth mother— who was married to an abusive alcoholic at the time. Not surprisingly, the sound of the man’s key in the door at night was enough to set off alarm bells in the defenseless child’s head.
Kalder, however, personified a safe haven from chaos and potential violence. She was a source of unconditional light and love for her grandchild. But she also closed her eyes and ears to the screams of parents whose children were being herded onto boxcars, headed for Auschwitz, at the command of her lover Goeth.
Teege is quick to clarify that she’s not an expert on the psychology of the Holocaust, but her receptivity and perception make her a model student.
Teege studied at the Sorbonne before traveling to Israel as a tourist. Once there she fell in love, learned to speak Hebrew fluently, stayed for five years and earned a degree in Middle Eastern and African studies from Tel Aviv University. The ties that bind Teege to Israel were established years before she found herself trying to reconcile an irreconcilable past. But, ever the student, she mined a life lesson from the abyss.
“We cannot inherit guilt for the past,” she says,”but we must assume responsibility for the future.”