When a black woman has Nazi an­ces­tors

Book re­view by Dee­sha Philyaw

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - bookworld@wash­post.com Dee­sha Philyaw is a co-founder of CoPar­ent­ing101.org and a co-au­thor, with her ex­hus­band, of “Co-Par­ent­ing 101: Help­ing Your Kids Thrive in Two House­holds Af­ter Di­vorce.”

His­to­rian Raul Hil­berg said that “in Ger­many, the Holo­caust is fam­ily his­tory.” This ob­ser­va­tion is the back­drop for Jen­nifer Teege’s haunt­ing and un­flinch­ing mem­oir, “My Grand­fa­ther Would Have Shot Me.” While brows­ing the li­brary in search of a book to ad­dress her life­long de­pres­sion, Teege, the daugh­ter of a Ger­man mother and a Nige­rian fa­ther, came across a bi­og­ra­phy that con­tained a shock­ing se­cret: Her grand­fa­ther was Amon Goeth, the “butcher of Plas­zow,” a Nazi com­man­dant no­to­ri­ous for his bru­tal treat­ment of Jews at the Krakow-Plas­zow con­cen­tra­tion camp.

Pre­vi­ously pub­lished in Poland, France, Ja­pan, Brazil, Is­rael and Ger­many (where it spent more than six months on best­seller lists), “My Grand­fa­ther Would Have Shot Me” came out in the United States on April 15, Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day, in a year that marks the 70th an­niver­sary of the end of World War II in Europe, as well as the end of the Nazi slaugh­ter of mil­lions of Jews.

Teege’s grand­fa­ther, por­trayed by Ralph Fi­ennes in the film “Schindler’s List,” was among the worst of the Nazis. Among count­less other atroc­i­ties, Goeth shot pris­on­ers from his bal­cony at the camp as a sadis­tic form of morn­ing ex­er­cise. Teege calls him “a man who killed peo­ple by the dozens and, what is more, who en­joyed it. My grand­fa­ther. I am the grand­daugh­ter of a mass mur­derer.”

This is an es­pe­cially dis­turb­ing rev­e­la­tion for Teege, a bira­cial adoptee and mar­ried mother of two, who had longed to know her fam­ily his­tory. Dis­il­lu­sioned and deeply de­pressed, she sought to come to terms with the past. Why hadn’t her mother told her about her grand­fa­ther? Had ev­ery­one in her life been ly­ing to her for decades? What, if any­thing, had she in­her­ited from her mon­ster of a grand­fa­ther, a man who would have shot her, a black woman, on sight? What would she say to her friends in Is­rael, where she’d lived and stud­ied for sev­eral years in her early 20s, meet­ing peo­ple who had lost rel­a­tives dur­ing the Holo­caust?

Fam­ily se­crets and the bur­den of si­lence are cen­tral themes of the mem­oir. Born in 1970, Teege was placed in a Catholic or­phan­age in Mu­nich by her sin­gle mother, Monika Goeth. There, she was cared for by nuns un­til the age of 3, when she was taken in by a foster fam­ily. While in the or­phan­age and in foster care, Teege spent time with her mother and grand­mother in­ter­mit­tently; this stopped when she was adopted by her foster fam­ily at age 7. She saw her mother again at age 21, then lost touch. The book’s pro­logue opens 17 years later, on that day in the li­brary when she stum­bled upon her con­nec­tion to Amon Goeth. In the chap­ters that fol­low, she re­counts an emo­tional and lit­eral jour­ney that takes her from Ger­many to Poland and Is­rael.

A lit­tle more than 200 pages long, “My Grand­fa­ther” seems twice that length — heavy, chal­leng­ing and res­o­nant. It is a mem­oir, an adop­tion story and a geopo­lit­i­cal his­tory les­son, all blended seam­lessly into an ac­count of Teege’s ex­plo­ration of her roots. Rather than a strict chronol­ogy of events, the book is a se­ries of mini-mem­oirs, of her par­ents and her grand­par­ents (birth and adop­tive), and of oth­ers whose lives were af­fected by the Holo­caust. As a col­lec­tive tes­ti­mony, “My Grand­fa­ther” shat­ters the kind of si­lence that has plagued some Ger­man fam­i­lies for three gen­er­a­tions and of­fers a heal­ing al­ter­na­tive to what Teege calls the “cor­ro­sive” ef­fect of fam­ily se­crets.

She ac­com­plishes this through re­search and through her concise and introspective nar­ra­tive, which is in­ter­wo­ven with a sec­ond nar­ra­tive by her co-au­thor, Nikola Sell­mair, an award-win­ning re­porter at Ger­many’s Stern mag­a­zine. Drawing upon the tes­ti­mony of schol­ars, Teege’s rel­a­tives and friends, Holo­caust sur­vivors and their descen­dants, and the descen­dants of Nazi per­pe­tra­tors, Sell­mair pro­vides a his­tor­i­cal and con­tex­tual back­drop to Teege’s story.

Teege lays bare her per­sonal evo­lu­tion to­ward mak­ing peace with her fam­ily his­tory. She is of course hor­ri­fied by her grand­fa­ther’s geno­ci­dal acts and lack of re­morse — his last words be­fore be­ing hanged were “Heil Hitler.” But Teege is most un­set­tled by the role of her grand­mother, whom she knew well, as Goeth’s live-in lover. “If it hadn’t been for [my grand­mother], maybe dis­cov­er­ing Amon Goeth in my fam­ily tree wouldn’t have been such a shock,” she writes. “I could have re­garded him more as a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure; I might not have taken it quite so per­son­ally. Yes, he is my grand­fa­ther, but he never pushed my stroller or held my hand. But my grand­mother did.”

Teege wres­tles with com­pet­ing images: the lov­ing grand­mother who com­forted her as a child, and the self-serv­ing woman who died in de­nial about the hu­man suf­fer­ing she wit­nessed and was still madly in love with a man who tor­tured oth­ers for plea­sure. Hu­man psy­chol­ogy, Teege ul­ti­mately concludes, can per­mit us to con­tinue lov­ing peo­ple even as we condemn their ac­tions.

EX­PER­I­MENT PUB­LISH­ING

Jen­nifer Teege’s grand­fa­ther was a bru­tal con­cen­tra­tion camp chief.

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