Jennifer Teege: Uncovering her family’s Nazi past

Jennifer Teege

A decade ago, Jennifer Teege randomly pulled a library book from a shelf and her life has never been the same. Recognizing photos of her mother and grandmother in the book, she made the horrifying discovery that her maternal grandfather was Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp in German-occupied Poland who was chillingly depicted by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List, and who was executed for war crimes in 1946. The more Teege read about Goeth, the more certain she became that if her grandfather had met her – a mixed-race woman whose father was Nigerian – he would have killed her.

Teege’s discovery caused her to fall into a severe depression, but also put her on a quest to unearth and try to comprehend her family’s haunted history. The result was her 2015 book, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past, which became an international bestseller.

Raised in an orphanage and eventually adopted, Teege spent four years studying in Israel in her 20s. She’s now a 48-year-old mother of two who lives in Hamburg.

Teege will be in Toronto to address the National Policy Conference on Holocaust Education, presented by Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, on Jan. 26 and 27 at the Novotel North York hotel.

You’re coming to Toronto for a conference on Holocaust education. What is the state of Holocaust education in Germany today?

It’s very different from the U.S. and Canada. In Germany, Holocaust education is mandatory in schools – every child has to learn about it. They start in middle school. The topics are tackled not only in history, but also in other subjects: religion, ethics, social sciences. It’s also discussed in society and the media.

There’s certainly public awareness, as when there’s an arrest of a Holocaust denier, and former Nazi war criminals are still being prosecuted.

Yes. Obviously, in cases like those, it’s in the media, it’s talked about. But also, we do have some troubles here in Europe. We have experienced a wave of populist leaders and a rise in extremism. So these issues get a lot of media coverage, not only if there’s a trial.

When you made your discovery of who your grandfather was, how long did it take for the shock to wear off? Or did the shock become something else?

I think it became something else. I can’t really say it took a certain amount of time, because it’s a transition. I had help. I was in therapy for a couple of years, and it’s still what I’m doing now. I try to educate and teach people. I use my personal story. So, it is still definitely a part of my life, but it changed and became a positive part of my life, because I can do something useful with it.

You fell into a deep depression when you made this discovery. There are many descendants of Holocaust victims who are haunted by their family’s past. Is it different for the descendants of the perpetrators?

Absolutely. You can’t really compare it. If you look at the families of the survivors, often they suffer in silence. People don’t talk about it in families because it’s too hurtful. In the Jewish community, I talk to a lot of people from the third generation. They really would like to talk to their grandparents and still, there is so much pain that they do not open up. So they’re silent.

I sometimes also notice silence in German families – that the grandparents don’t talk. But the difference is that it’s because of guilt and maybe, hopefully, shame. It’s because they don’t want to talk about it. The grandchildren are often afraid to ask, even though it’s widely spoken of in public. In private, it’s still something else. It’s very difficult to talk about and ask these painful questions, especially, for example, if you have to ask your grandfather whether he killed someone. This is something that many people try to avoid, especially when they’re young. So they are silent.


How did you reveal your connection to Goeth to your family and friends? Did you do it differently to your Jewish and Israeli friends?

Yes. I did talk to my family and with my husband from the very beginning when I made the discovery. My husband was the one who picked me up. He knew that I was adopted and hadn’t had any information apart from that. With my children, it took some time until I shared it with them, because it was very toxic and I thought it needed to be done in a careful way, because they were very young. Now they do know, but it took me some time.

With my friends, I didn’t talk about it until I actually came out and spoke in public about my family’s historical background. I opened up to very few people. And with my Jewish friends, this was also very difficult because I was not only afraid that it would somehow affect our friendship – some of them I’ve known for 10, 20 years – but also I was really scared that it might trigger a revelation in their families.

With my Jewish friends, I knew a little bit about their families’ pasts, but you don’t remember everything. I was afraid that someone might have been killed at Plaszow. At first, I didn’t know what it would trigger within them or within the families, so I kept silent for quite a while. But then eventually, I did talk to them.

Did your discovery affect the way you’ve raised your children?

Yes. Absolutely. It was always important for me that they grow up with ethics and moral values – the foundation of my education. Nowadays, with our family background, it is even more important for me that they know what is right and wrong and that they are able to stand up for themselves.

Did you ever fear that one day you would resemble your grandfather in some way?

Yeah, I talk about this. In the beginning, that was the case. I thought, “You shouldn’t think like this because this would be confirmation of the racist theory. One doesn’t need to resemble because it’s not a genetic transition.” I do have some similar facial lines, but no, not the character. But I was worried in the beginning, I have to admit. But it’s irrational. I think it was due to the fact that I was simply still in shock. So, yeah, I did think about it, and I was scared.

What impact did your book have in Germany?

It was also on the bestseller list in Germany and lots of people read it, spoke about it and contacted me. I think it opened up a discussion. Often, people told me that after reading the book, they started to dig into their own family’s past. I think it did raise some awareness. If you have a personal story, people can relate more to it. My book was a very personal story and I talked about it in a very personal, intimate way. So I think it got to the heart of people, and not so much just from the intellectual point of view, that they just thought about the Holocaust.

You have reconnected with your biological mother. Did that have a satisfactory ending?

No, I wouldn’t say it had a satisfactory ending. I don’t think there’s an end. We’re both still alive, so you don’t know what the future brings. My mother cut ties once when I was a child and again a couple of years ago, even though we reconciled. I always say my door is open. I hope one day, if she’s still alive, she might like to reconnect. I think that would be good.

In your book, you wrote, “at age 38, I found the book. Why on earth did I pick it up off the shelf, one among hundreds of thousands of books? Is there such a thing as fate?” You said your book is “the key to my family history, to my life, the key I’ve been looking for all these years.” It sounds as though you believe in fate, but do you ever regret discovering your past?

No, I never regretted it. I don’t think that you can run away from things. You can’t run away from the past, you can’t run away from yourself. The earlier you start these things, the better, because if you try to run away from things, they haunt you, they come back like a boomerang.

I have a problem saying my discovery was fate, because I don’t believe in determinism. If you believe in determinism, you think you don’t have power over your life and this is very dangerous. You do have power. You are the one who makes the decisions. People often praise me for coming out on the other side. Yes, but it was hard work. I was very lucky that I had help. I had the help of a therapist. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to speak today to other people and try to teach them something. You have to take your life into your own hands. But I do believe that there is a bigger power than ourselves.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity