Jennifer Teege never knew much about her family history. Born in Munich, the daughter of a German mother and a Nigerian father, she was placed in an orphanage and then foster care before being adopted by her foster parents at age 7. She saw her mother and grandmother sporadically before the adoption, then briefly reconnected with her mom at age 20. So in 2008, when Teege was 38 and working in advertising she came across a book called I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? The Life Story of Monika Goeth at a library in Hamburg, she instantly recognized the name of the woman who had given birth to her. “Jennifer was trembling,” her husband, Goetz, recalls. Says Teege: “The moment I had that book in my hand, I knew it would give me so many answers.”
But those answers proved, as Teege puts it, “a toxic power” that caused nightmares and a breakdown: The grandfather she never knew – but whose photo she remembers hanging over her beloved grandmother’s bed – was Amon Goeth, Nazi commandant of Plaszow concentration camp. Notorious for his abhorrence of mixing races and for siccing his dogs on Jews for sport, Goeth was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List. “Has my whole life been a lie? I feel like I have been traveling under a false name,” Teege writes in her memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me.
With the help of a therapist, Teege, whose adoptive parents hadn’t known about her history, worked through terrible emotions. There was anger at her mother for telling her story to an author but not her daughter. But there was too a feeling of confused betrayal toward the grandmother, Ruth Irene Kalder, who had held Teege’s hand as a girl and “felt like home,” she says. She can’t reconcile those memories with images of Kalder swanning about Plaszow with Goeth’s killer dogs. “I could never have stayed with him like she did,” Teege says. “But if I say I love her, would it mean that I too close my eyes to what my grandfather did?”
Then there was the loathing for Goeth, whose evil was unthinkable to a woman whose college years in Israel included time spent reading to elderly Holocaust survivors. “I just reject him as a person,” says Teege. Promoting her book’s overseas release, she has reached out to Holocaust survivors and Israelis. While she’s not yet ready to share Goeth’s story with her two young sons (“Maybe when they’re 17 or 18. I still want to protect them”), Teege is finally at peace with her own. “A Nazi gene doesn’t exist,” she says. “We can decide for ourselves who and what we want to be.”