My Nazi Grandfather Would Have Shot Me
At age 38 Jennifer Teege, a black German, discovered that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the villain of Schindler's List.
Six-foot tall, bi-racial and German-speaking, Jennifer Teege was noticeably different from other students at the University of Tel Aviv in the early 1990s. Jennifer herself didn't yet know just how different she truly was. She would soon discover that she was the granddaughter of a Nazi mass-murderer.
Jennifer Teege’s earliest years were harsh and difficult. Her German mother, Monika Goeth, was estranged from her Nigerian father when Jennifer was born in 1970. Financially struggling and suffering from depression, Monika deposited Jennifer at the local Catholic orphanage when she was a month old. Monika and her mother, Ruth Irene Kalder, visited intermittently, but showed little affection for the child.
The visits tapered off when Jennifer was fostered at three, and stopped completely once she was adopted at age seven. Her new parents refused to allow Monika, who was in an abusive marriage, to sully her life.
Jennifer would not see her mother again until she was in her early twenties. In the intervening years she was raised in a stable middle-class home. It was challenging to know that her birth mother rejected her, and she felt humiliated when other kids raised questions about the color of her skin (her adoptive family was white), but Jennifer was a survivor. Gifted with intelligence and a fighting-spirit, along with a supportive family, she overcame her own bout with depression at the age of 20, and went on to study at the Sorbonne.
Her time in Paris came to an unexpected end once she was invited by an Israeli friend to spend a vacation at her parents’ home.
A German in Tel Aviv
Surrounded by Jewish friends, Jennifer loved Israel and knew she would miss it when she left. She has described what happened as “a quirk of fate.” She overslept on the morning of her planned return and missed her plane. One thing led to another and - with an Israeli boyfriend thrown in – she decided to stay in Israel. She spent the next four years at the University of Tel Aviv where she earned a degree in Middle Eastern and African Studies, as well as becoming fluent in Hebrew.
Jennifer, who had Jewish friends when living in France, didn't find it uncomfortable being a German student at an Israeli University. More than 45 years after the end of the war, she never encountered an anti-German bias amongst her (largely liberal) peers and professors.
She had learned about the Holocaust in school, and although it was taught as an academic subject – she had never encountered its victims – she identified with the “new Germany” that disconnected itself from its past.
Jennifer Teege in front of the walls of a former Jewish ghetto.
When the film Schindler’s List was released in Israel, she felt no urge to view it right away. She eventually saw it. “It was shocking, horrific, but I related to it as a human being, not as a German.”
And Jennifer gave no attention to the fact that the arch-villain of the story, Amon Goeth, “the Butcher of Plaszow”, shared her birth name. Jennifer bore the name of her adoptive parents and had no reason to relate it to herself.
The Red Book
More than a decade later, Jennifer Teege was living a full and rewarding life in Hamburg. With a devoted husband, two young children and a good job, her uncertain beginnings were long forgotten.
At the age of 38, while browsing in a large library in her hometown, she unearthed a landmine that threatened to explode the solid edifice she had built. All it took was a book. Jennifer was drawn to a slim red book that had a strange title: “I Have to Love My Father, Right?"
Why would anyone ask this question? she wondered. After flipping through its pages, Jennifer had her answer. The book had been co-authored by the daughter of one of Nazi Germany’s most infamous killers, Amon Goeth, the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp, the villain of Schindler’s List.
Jennifer turned to the woman’s biographical details at the end of the book and her worst fears were confirmed: the author was her birth mother. That meant that Amon Goeth was her grandfather!
His daughter, whose picture was on the book cover, eerily resembled a person she had once known.
Jennifer quickly turned to the woman’s biographical details at the end of the book and her worst fears were confirmed. The author, Monika Hertwig (the last name of her second husband) was her birth mother.
That meant that Amon Goeth was her grandfather!
A grandfather who was a heinous monster… a grandmother who’d stood at his side… a mother who did not denounce him. Then later that day German television broadcasted a PBS documentary called "Inheritance" that featured Monika and Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a Jewish maid who was subjected to Goeth's barbarism. It was too much to process and her emotions shut-down.
Jennifer Teege and her grandfather, Amon Goeth
A shattered Jennifer re-entered the realm of depression that had plagued her years before. Unable to face the world, her Jewish friends, and most of all herself, she could see only darkness.
Months of intensive therapy and scathing introspection would follow before Jennifer was able to remove herself from her cocoon of anger, pain and guilt. As she began to extricate herself from its stifling layers, she went to visit Plaszow where her grandfather had caused the death of thousands of Jews. She visited Israel and spoke to Holocaust survivors. She visited her long-estranged mother and heard the bitter truth about her grandmother, Ruth Irene Kalder who was Goeth's mistress at his villa in Plaszow. She had consistently denied Goeth’s wrongdoing until her final days.
Eventually, she was able to look it in the eye and say, “It’s time to move on.”
In 2013, Jennifer wrote a memoir that chronicles her journey, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me. Its title alludes to the notion that Goeth would have shot her on account of her non-Aryan looks.
Jennifer has been able to escape the demons that control Monika and many of the children of Nazis, whom she describes as “living with the dead.” Responsibility is not the same thing as guilt. While she acknowledges the gravity of the actions of her forbears, she has come to the understanding that she is not to blame for their sins. “There is no Nazi gene,” she writes. “We can decide for ourselves who and what we want to be.”
Today Jennifer is a full-time motivational speaker. She has told her story to thousands around the world, using the legacy of one of the most reviled men in history to inspire many to overcome the challenges they face.