Jennifer Teege’s soft, lilting voice and self-assured manner belie the emotional turmoil she went through after discovering seven years ago, at 38, that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the infamous commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp, played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List.
Teege chronicled her story in a 2013 book called My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past. She spoke to a standing-room-only crowd estimated at 600 people at a Nov. 5 Holocaust Education Week (HEW) event co-sponsored by the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany at Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto.
About 150 people listened from an overflow room, and others left or were turned away because organizers couldn’t guarantee seats for them. HEW, now in its 36th year, is presented by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.
Grappling with anger, fear, and post-traumatic stress disorder shortly after she learned the truth about her birth mother’s father, Teege was “terrified” to notice a facial similarity to her grandfather. In those early days, she said, “I was still full of irrational thoughts.”
But, she stressed in her talk, physical similarities don’t say anything about character or who you are. “There’s no such thing as a Nazi gene, because you yourself decide who you want to be.”
Teege, a native of Hamburg, learned of her background when she happened on a book called I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I?, and realized that it was the story of her birth mother.
Although her own story is unique, Teege noted that it touches on universal themes – family secrets, history, and identity. More importantly, she said, she has shared it because she wants to set a positive example.
“We do carry a lot of responsibility as Germans – I especially, as the granddaughter of Amon Goeth – but we don’t carry any guilt, only responsibility,” she said, speaking for herself and others born after the war.
It took a year and a half after discovering the book before she felt ready to contact her birth mother. By then, therapy had helped her realize how different their experiences were. The second generation, she noted, was educated by “the generation of the perpetrators,” who didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust. Now, she said, Holocaust education is mandatory in Germany.
Her grandfather – Schindler’s nemesis, as she referred to him – was extradited to Poland after the war, convicted as a war criminal, and hanged.
Ironically, Teege had seen Schindler’s List as a student in Israel, where she spent almost five years. But Teege’s time in Israel had nothing to do with her family history, she said. She happened to meet an Israeli girl who invited her to visit, and she stayed. “Today, of course, it’s an important piece in the puzzle of my life.”
Teege spoke of her happy childhood growing up in a white German family who took her in as a foster child at age three from an orphanage, then adopted her when she was seven. She continued to see her birth mother and maternal grandmother sporadically. Teege’s mother and her Nigerian father were no longer together when she was born.
As a mother with two young children, Teege felt guilty that she was having trouble functioning. She thought it would help her to visit the site of the former Plaszow Concentration Camp outside of Krakow, and honour the victims. While there, she lit a candle, left flowers at a memorial, and listened to visiting Israeli youngsters speaking Hebrew. On the plane home, “for the first time, I felt some kind of relief,” she recalls.
Among her challenges, she struggled to reconcile her new knowledge with memories of her beloved late grandmother, who had provided a safe haven when Teege’s mother was in a relationship with an abusive man. She found it unbelievable that her grandmother was “capable of living with a sadist like Amon Goeth.”
While ultimately it was easy for Teege to differentiate herself from her grandfather, it was “not so easy” when it came to her grandmother, and she wondered what she would have done herself. “Just because she wasn’t guilty in the legal sense, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t guilty,” Teege said, adding that failure to render assistance is now considered criminal.
Because of continuing anti-Semitism, racism, and extremism, she concluded, “it’s so important to teach and educate about the Holocaust, so we can learn from the past.”