When Jennifer Teege, a German-Nigerian woman, randomly picked up a library book off a shelf, her life changed forever. Recognizing images of her mother and grandmother in the book, she discovered a horrifying fact that no one had ever shared with her: Her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the vicious Nazi commandant depicted by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, a man known and despised the world over.
“I am the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, who shot hundreds of people – and for being black, he would have shot me, too.” – Jennifer Teege.
Although raised in an orphanage and eventually adopted, Teege had some contact with her biological mother and grandmother as a child. Yet neither revealed that Teege’s grandfather was the Nazi “butcher of Plaszów,” executed for crimes against humanity in 1946.
The more Teege reads about Amon Goeth, the more certain she becomes: If her grandfather had met her—a black woman—he would have killed her.
Teege’s discovery sends her, at age 38, into a severe depression. My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past details her quest to unearth and fully comprehend her family’s haunted history. Her research takes her to Krakow—to the sites of the Jewish ghetto her grandfather “cleared” in 1943 and the Plaszów concentration camp he then commanded—and back to Israel, where she herself once attended college, learned fluent Hebrew and formed lasting friendships. Teege struggles to reconnect with her estranged mother, and to accept that her beloved grandmother once lived in luxury as Goeth’s mistress at Plaszów.
Ultimately, Teege’s resolute search for the truth leads her, step by step, to the possibility of her own liberation. The chronicle of her struggle with her haunted past unfolds in her memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, co-written with journalist Nikola Sellmair and newly translated from German.
In this excerpt from the book, Teege visits the house where Goeth lived as “Master of the Płaszów Concentration Camp” (from Chapter 2).
Carefully I place one foot in front of the other. The floor beneath me sways; the rotten wood creaks and yields under the pressure of each step. It is cold and damp in here; the air smells musty. It’s such a squalid place. What’s that over there? Is that rat droppings? There is no proper light in here; not enough light, and not enough air either. Carefully I continue walking through my grandfather’s house, crossing the dark fishbone parquet into the former trophy room. Amon Goeth once had a sign put up here that said he who shoots first lives longer.
I had wanted to see the house where my grandparents lived. A Polish tour guide whose address I found on the Internet told me that it still stood. A pensioner lives there now, and every now and then he shows individual visitors around. The tour guide called the man and arranged for me to see the house.
In the Płaszów neighborhood of Krakow, the only dilapidated house on quiet Heltmana Street stands out like a sore thumb against the other neat and tidy single-family homes. Some of its windowpanes are broken; the curtains are dirty; the house looks unlived-in. A large sign on the front of the house says sprzedam. For sale.
The front door still looks beautiful; the wood is decorated with ornaments, and the dark red paint has faded only a little. An unkempt man opens the door and leads me up a narrow stairway into the house. My tour guide Malgorzata Kieres—she’s asked me to call her by her first name—translates his Polish for me. I haven’t told Malgorzata why I am interested in the house; she thinks I am a tourist with a general interest in history.
I look around. The plaster is coming off the walls. There is hardly any furniture. But there is a coldness that creeps into your bones. And a stench. The ceilings are underpinned with wooden beams. I hope the house won’t collapse on top of me and bury me beneath it.
Crumbling walls, holding up the past.
Over a year has gone by since I first found the book about my mother in the library. Since then I have read everything I could find about my grandfather and the Nazi era. I am haunted by the thought of him, I think about him constantly. Do I see him as a grandfather or as a historical character? He is both to me: Płaszów commandant Amon Goeth and my grandfather.
When I was young I was very interested in the Holocaust. I went on a school trip from Munich to the Dachau concentration camp, and I devoured one book about the Nazi era after another, such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, A Square of Sky and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. I saw the world through Anne Frank’s eyes; I felt her fear but also her optimism and her hope.
The history teachers at my high school showed us documentaries about the liberation of the concentration camps, and we saw people who had been reduced to mere skeletons. I read book after book, looking for answers, to find out what drove the perpetrators to act the way they did, but in the end, I gave up: Yes, I found some explanations, but I would never understand it completely. Finally, finished with the subject, I concluded that I would have behaved differently. I was different; today’s Germans were different.
When I first arrived in Israel in my early twenties, I picked up books about Nazism again. Yet even there, where I was meeting the victims and their children and grandchildren on a daily basis, more important issues soon took over. I had read so much and asked so many people about it—I felt like I knew everything there was to know about the Holocaust. I was much more interested in the here and now: the Palestinian conflict, the threat of war.
I had thought I knew it all, but now, at nearly 40, I have to start all over.