Would my Nazi grandfather have shot me for being black?

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills and you’re tuned to The World. We all have family baggage, but it’s probably not as heavy as Jennifer Teege’s. She’s the author of a memoir called, “My Grandfather Would’ve Shot Me: A Black Woman Discover’s Her Family’s Nazy Past.” Teege’s grandfather was none other than Amon Goeth. He was the terrifying Nazi commandant played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie, “Schindler’s List,” the guy who casually shot Jewish prisoners. But Teege never knew this growing up. Her father was Nigerian and her German mother gave her up for adoption when Teege was just seven. It was only as an adult that she discovered her relation to Goeth. She happened to pick up a book about the Nazi commandant at a library in Hamburg and was shocked to find a picture of her mother and grandmother inside.


Jennifer Teege: Everything went so quick. I was in the library and it felt like the carpet was ripped up from under my feet because it came so out of the blue. And with having no knowledge of my family background, suddenly discovering that you have a family member like my biological grandfather, who was such a sadistic person, was very, very difficult to deal with.


Hills: How did you actually confirm that Amon Goeth was your grandfather? Did you know your birth name? Is that how you put two and two together?


Teege: Yes, I knew my birth name because I was adopted only when I was seven, so I wrote the name “Goeth” on my school books. And I had some limited knowledge of my family background, I knew who my mother was, I knew who my grandmother was. But I never put the pieces together. I didn’t know anything about the historical background. And Amon Goeth, I knew the name because I’ve seen the movie, “Schindler’s List,” ironically while I was studying in Israel because I have a very special connection to the Jewish faith and the people in Israel, I lived and studied there in my mid-20s for four years, I studied Middle Eastern history and politics. But I saw the movie like everyone else. I did not make the connection. I didn’t know that this person that I was seeing on the screen was my biological grandfather.


Hills: Now, your grandmother, it’s an interesting case: you had contact with her, she was Amon Goeth’s girlfriend and she enjoyed incredible privilege at this PÅ‚aszów(?) concentration camp, where he was a commandant, and a very sort of sadistic, brutal commandant. What was your memory of her?


Teege: Well, I only had good memories of her. She was someone in my childhood who played an important role. Because I was growing up in an orphanage, I only had limited contact with my biological relatives. And I liked my grandmother, she provided me with safety. As I said my mother was an abusive relationship. So, she was really important for me. And after I found out who my biological grandfather was, it was very difficult for me somehow to bring the loving memories that I had of my grandmother together with the new image that showed her as a woman who was capable of living outside a concentration camp with a man as sadistic as my grandfather. This was very difficult somehow, the struggle to divide these two characters of my grandmother.


Hills: So, how did you cope with that kind of contradiction in your memory vs. what you learned?


Teege: Well, it took a long time and obviously I couldn’t do it by myself, I had the help of friends, especially the help, for example, of my Jewish friends, with whom I shared the secret. After a while, I had the help of my adopted family and I had the help of a therapist. There were so many different layers I had to go through, and with my grandmother I understood that when you look at a person, it is not that you can divide the world into black and white. With my grandfather, it’s very easy because he had dogs that he trained to tear humans apart, someone who you see evil in so clearly. And my grandmother, although she was capable of living outside a concentration camp, she was also able to give me love as a child. So, I could see with her personally, within her figure, that there were so many different aspects to her person and I tried to look very, very clearly and tried to analyze the different characters I had to deal with of my biological family.


Hills: What was it like when you finally confronted your biological mother about this secret, about Amon Goeth?


Teege: It took me more than one and a half years until I approached her, because first I had to leave the feelings of anger behind, the anger that she didn’t share the secret with me. But when I eventually met her after all these years, we talked and I asked her a lot of questions--a lot of questions about the past but also questions about our relationship, and we managed, for a while, to build up a new relationship. Unfortunately, my mother decided to stop the relationship, and at the moment I don’t see her. Maybe she needs time, as much as I needed it at the beginning--time to reflect and somehow time to integrate her daughter into her life. But I don’t know. I always say my door is open, but she needs to decide whether she wants to step in.


Hills: Would you describe the journey you took as a way to sort of pay for your grandfather’s sins, or is it something else?


Teege: No, you can’t pay for someone else’s sins, and this is important to understand. You can’t inherit guilt. You can inherit responsibility, and in my case this is obvious. I inherited responsibility. I’m the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, so I feel responsible; I feel responsible to speak out. But I did not inherit guilt, because this is simply not possible. This is true for me, but this is also true for everyone else who has someone in the family who was maybe a criminal or did something wrong. You don’t inherit the guilt.


Hills: Would you feel like you, in some ways, have a particular gift to offer to other people with deep, dark secrets? Your family history is almost unbelievable--the facts are unbelievable, but also the fact that you weren’t aware of it and you discover it in such a surprising, startling way. Do you feel like you’ve learned and gained certain things that you can share with other people in similar circumstances?


Teege: Definitely. First of all, what my example shows is that you’re not a prisoner to your past, you decide who you want to be, you can decide how you want to live your life. Even though it’s difficult, you can overcome obstacles. I read a quote by Bettina Goering, she’s the grand niece of Goering, who was the commander of the German Air Force in the Nazi era.


Hills: Herman Goering.


Teege: Yeah. And she decided to sterilize herself because she wanted to cut the family line. I thought “This is so wrong.” I think one needs to set a different example, and I hope that when you look at me and you see that I have a different character, it’s not just my outer appearance, that I’m black, but what is more important is that the inside and my character is so different from the character of my biological grandfather.


Hills: Jennifer Teege is the author of the book, “My Grandfather Would’ve Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.” Thanks so much, Jennifer.


Teege: You’re welcome.


Hills: You can read an excerpt from Teege’s book at PRI.ORG. This is The World.