Title: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past
Author: Jennifer Teege, Nikola Sellmair (co-author), Carolin Sommer (translator)
Publisher: The Experiment; 1st Printing edition (April 15, 2015)
Copyright: April 2015
Format: E-Book, 240 Pages, $8.97 [Amazon Paperback], $8.52 [Kindle], $14.95 [Audible], $9.12 [Barnes & Noble Paperback], $8.52 [Nook], $26.07 [Barnes and Noble Audiobook], $8.52 [Google Play], $9.99 [iBooks], $14.95 [iBooks Audiobook]
When Jennifer Teege, a German-Nigerian woman, happens to pluck a library book from the shelf, she has no idea that her life will be irrevocably altered. Recognizing photos of her mother and grandmother in the book, she discovers a horrifying fact: Her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the vicious Nazi commandant chillingly depicted by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List – a man known and reviled the world over.
Although raised in an orphanage and eventually adopted, Teege had some contact with her biological mother and grandmother as a child. Yet neither revealed that Teege’s grandfather was the Nazi “butcher of Plaszów”, executed for crimes against humanity in 1946. The more Teege reads about Amon Goeth, the more certain she becomes: If her grandfather met her – a black woman – he would have killed her.
Teege’s discovery sends her, at age 38, into a severe depression – and on a quest to unearth and fully comprehend her family’s haunted history. Her research takes her to Krakow – to the sites of the Jewish ghetto her grandfather “cleared” in 1943 and the Plaszów concentration camp he then commanded – and back to Israel, where she herself once attended college, learned fluent Hebrew, and formed lasting friendships. Teege struggles to reconnect with her estranged mother, Monika, and to accept that her beloved grandmother once lived in luxury as Amon Goeth’s mistress at Plaszów.
Teege’s story is cowritten by award-winning journalist Nikola Sellmair, who also contributes a second, interwoven narrative that draws on original interviews with Teege’s family and friends and adds historical context. Ultimately Teege’s resolute search for the truth leads her, step by step, to the possibility of her own liberation.
The moment I saw this book, I was transported back to my Junior year of high school. Perched in that plastic chair in my Social Studies class, I watched a film – one that was disturbing beyond words – for the first time. It was such a violent film that we were required to receive written consent from our parents and guardians. That incendiary film was Stephen Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”
It is one of those films that is beyond the scope of words. To this day, I can remember the raw emotions of experiencing the film for the first time. The criminal conduct of one human being towards another. One of the most prominent and disturbing images in the film was that of Ralph Fiennes in his portrayal of the sadistic Amon Goeth, the sinister gun-toting Nazi camp Kommandant who shoots innocent people from the patio of his house. Watching this film in school, we were told that everything we saw had actually happened.
Fast forward a decade. I was in a bookstore and came across this book. In most cases, it’s the cover that grips me. However, in this case, it was the title that enticed me to read it. In all frankness, I can say that this isn’t a lighthearted book (not that anyone could expect it to be) but a heady one, a sobering tale of a woman who had to come to grips with the fact that she is the granddaughter of one of the most wicked men of his time.
It all started for Jennifer Teege as she was in the library. She was at the library searching for books about how to cope with depression. All of a sudden, she discovered a book written by her very own biological mother (Monika Hertwig) called I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? Flipping through the pages with the pictures, she immediately knew that it couldn’t be any mistake. It was her mother’s book. What must have been Twilight Zone moment for Jennifer grew steadily worse as she soon learned the truth about her maternal grandfather and his violent life as a camp kommandant. The discovery seemed to drive Jennifer immediately into a serious bout of depression and made her feel very insecure about herself.
Jennifer then begins to explain about her life thus far. Despite being the daughter German-born Monika Hertwig and a Nigerian father, Jennifer was placed in an orphanage at the age of 3. She has exceedingly fond memories of her maternal grandmother, Ruth Irene Kalder (the one-time mistress of Amon Goeth who spent the rest of her life defending what her lover did and even taking his surname) who showered her with affection and love. What she can recall is that her mother was never very involved and seemed largely emotionally unavailable. Growing up in the orphanage, she was raised by warmhearted nuns and she would have occasional visits from her grandmother, rarely any from her mother.
From the beginning, Jennifer was a very unique young woman in the sense that she had darker skin than the other children around her and in the fact that she was unabashedly herself. In time she was adopted by a living couple by the name of Inge and Gerhard Sieber who raised Jennifer as one of their very own children. She grew up alongside two brothers: Matthias and Manuel. In her young adult life, she had a chance to go to Paris and then to Israel, experiencing the culture of both locales and making lifelong friends. At an ad agency, Jennifer met a man by the name of Goetz Teege whom she married and with whom she had two sons.
In the wake of the epiphany, Jennifer attempted to reestablish a relationship with her wayward and emotionally unavailable mother. There was a span of time where they did reconnect and Monika actually met her grandsons but it was short-lived. As the author recounts, her mother eventually began to feel smothered by Jennifer and her need to make everything right. While spending all that time with her mother, Jennifer mentioned Monika’s obsession with her father, Amon Goeth. As much as Jennifer tried to steer the topic away from Amon, Ruth, and Plaszow, Monika would talk of little else.
Later on, when she made her horrifying discovery, she felt that her friendships with her Israeli friends, Noa and Anat, were tested. Jennifer recounts, “When I was ready to turn to my friends in Israel, I realized how hard it was. It felt as if I had led some kind of double life all these years. As if I had been lying to my friends and all the people around me” (Teege, 190).
From what I’ve seen or heard about family members of Nazi perpetrators, it’s never an easy burden to bear. There seems to be a strong feeling of guilt on the part of the Nazis’ children, relatives, and descendants. Bettina Goering, the grand-niece of Hermann Goering chose to have herself sterilized in fear of carrying on the blood of someone who was so monstrous and reviled. Others have attempted to do what they can to condemn what their relatives and parents have done. Josef Mengele’s son, Rolf Mengele knew his father was in hiding and never revealed his whereabouts to the authorities and Nazi hunters. He appeared on Phil Donahue and spoke of meeting his father in the 1970’s. Many wonder why exactly he didn’t turn his father in. There are even those who deny outright the unspeakable horrors that their relatives and parents have committed to other human beings.
I feel like My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me is an unrate-able book. It’s one of those books that leaves you jarred and at the same time, saddened. No amount of words can exonerate the Nazi perpetrators from what evils they committed. In a different vein, many children of Nazis tend to live under this shadow and continue to suffer from guilt to this day. In her book, she asks a very profound question, “What is family? Is it something we inherit, or something we build?” (Teege, 199). You can’t choose who you are related to. You are born into the family that you are born into. Then begs the question: Can guilt be inherited?
I view My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me as Jennifer’s personal journey and as a way for her to cope with the horrific revelation of her maternal grandfather. From start to finish, she reflects on her life, struggles with the issue of the guilt that weighs on her shoulders, and tries to find a way of dealing with the truth. Sometimes the truth of life can be unbearable. Towards the end of the book, she finally makes a visit to Plaszow at the behest of her friend Anat. She doesn’t go alone but with a group of Israeli school children and while there, she has the opportunity to speak to them. She explains who she is and where she comes from, telling her story to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who survived the camps. At this part in the book, I found myself tearing up and found the ending to be very touching.
Jennifer Teege is a brave woman to do such a thing. She shows that now she knows where she comes from, she is a stronger person who wants to make a difference in the world. This quote just about sums up Jennifer’s thoughts, “I want to walk upright and to live a normal life. There is no such thing as inherited guilt. Everybody has their own life story” (Teege, 142).
Join us next time as we uncover the mysterious world of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad!