What would you do if you suddenly learned your biological grandfather was the very essence of evil?
Jennifer Teege knows this from personal experience. She's from an unlikely background- her biological mother was a German, her father from Africa. Her mother gave her up for adoption when she was a child, and for years before that she had been in an orphanage and then foster care to the family she was adopted into. She had memories of her mother and her grandmother- but no answers on other elements of her family.
And so it was that one day in a library in Hamburg, her eyes came across a book... one that changed her life and pulled the rug out from under her. It was a book featuring photographs of her biological mother and her grandmother, tying them to a man made infamous by history: Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland during the war. The same man played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.
Her grandmother was Goeth's mistress. Her mother was the result of their liason. Which made her the granddaughter of a monster.
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me is the collaborative book by Jennifer Teege and journalist Nikola Sellmair, telling her story of discovery and coming to terms with the facts against the backdrop of history. Teege writes in the first person, recounting her history with her adoptive family, none of whom knew the history of her biological family, and her struggles in dealing with the revelations. Sellmair writes in the third person, the two trading off each other; Sellmair fills in some of the gaps and provides context where needed, but the book is Teege's story.
And what a compelling story it is. She spent university years in Israel, where among her activities was reading German newspapers to elderly Holocaust survivors- she wonders how any of them would feel to know about her family connections, as well as friends she's made there. She writes about the memories she had of her mother and grandmother, and the contrast particularly between the loving grandmother she remembered and the reality that this was the mistress of a Nazi- the question is asked, how could a woman who once chose to ignore the Holocaust as it was happening right outside her window be such a loving grandmother to a mixed race child who would have been shot by the man she loved?
Teege also writes about her mother, who seemed in her memories to be distant and deeply troubled, carrying the weight of her father's sins without explaining why. The two writers go into detail in different ways about the notion of history passing down through generations- Holocaust survivors on the one hand pass along a legacy of trauma that differs from the second to third generation, while the descendants of perpetrators inherit a legacy of guilt that is not their own, reacting to it in different ways- some children steadfastly defended their Nazi fathers, while others deeply rejected their family past. Teege speaks of her mother, who seems to have been profoundly damaged by that legacy, perhaps to the point where she realized she couldn't be a fit mother.
The book is in effect a journey by the author, both in terms of making peace with her family past and a physical journey. That includes journeys to Poland, to the home her grandmother shared with her grandfather, where he would shoot inmates from his balcony; today the camp is gone but a memorial remains. It is a journey of healing; she struggles with depression, and refers to it as being in a deep hole, something I can relate to, as much as she struggles with the guilt and the questions of the past.
I found the writing deeply affecting. It is not possible to feel empathy for Amon Goeth- the man was pure evil, and whatever answers might be out there about what made him that way remain unknown. One does feels a tremendous sense of empathy for others, for the author, her family as it is today, for her friends, and even for the mother and grandmother she remembered. Teege's grandmother, though she chose to ignore evil happening outside her door, was nonetheless marked by it, taking her own life. Teege's biological mother has spent a lifetime weighed down by guilt and shame because of her father. When I finished reading the book, as difficult as it was to read, given the subject matter, it was also compelling, very human, and ultimately uplifting.