Sins of our grandfathers

Jennifer Teege, left, learned her grandfather was the notorious Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth.Photo by David Stuck
Jennifer Teege, left, learned her grandfather was the notorious Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth.
Photo by David Stuck

Jennifer Teege was searching for answers to her depression when she picked up a book called But I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? in a library in Hamburg, Germany, where she lives.

“While I was leafing through the pages, there were photos and text. I continued and continued and saw a photo of a woman who reminded me of my mother,” the 45-year-old German native told an audience last week at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville.

Teege realized the book was about her biological mother and, by extension, her grandfather whom she had never met — a Nazi war criminal and the commandant of Plaszow concentration camp Amon Goeth, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List.

Teege stumbled upon this revelation seven years ago. Her book, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past, co-written with Nikola Sellmair, was published in English last year.

The daughter of a German woman and Nigerian man, Teege had already had her share of ups and downs. Her mother, Monika Goeth — gave her up for adoption when she was four weeks old. She spent the next few years in an orphanage, seeing her mother and grandmother occasionally. She was three years old when a foster family took her in and later adopted her.

She grew up not knowing much about her biological family and learning about the Holocaust in school and through popular culture.

She studied at the Sorbonne and in Israel, where she learned Hebrew. Several of her friends there are Holocaust survivors.

As portrayed by Fiennes, Goeth is a sadist who shoots Jews indiscriminately — a trait the real-life commandant shared, as survivors have testified.

Teege’s grandmother, Ruth Kalder Goeth, was Goeth’s mistress and pregnant with Teege’s mother at the end of World War II when Goeth was arrested and brought to Poland for trial. Teege’s mother was born in 1945; Goeth was executed in 1946. His last words before being hanged were “Heil Hitler.”

“It was difficult not only to understand, but to accept,” Teege said of her discovery. “It took a long, long time.”

She said she would hold a photo of Goeth to a mirror and look for similarities in his face and hers.

Edna Friedberg, a historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which sponsored Teege’s appearance, pointed out that “biology is destiny” was a main tenet of Nazism. She asked Teege how learning her family secret affected her.

“I had a very different life before,” Teege said. “It changes you. You are a part of something bigger.”

At first, there was a lot of guilt that came with the discovery. Later, she came to see it in a different light.

“You can’t inherit guilt,” she said. “What you can inherit is responsibility.”

Asked if her story — her years spent in Israel, the way she stumbled upon the book — was a case of divine intervention, Teege said, “Was it coincidence or was it meant to be? I don’t know.”

She added that while people make choices in their lives, perhaps some things are meant to be.

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