Jennifer Teege talked to Neokohn about the fear of Nazi heritage, the devastating effects of silence, and how her book was received in Israel.
Jennifer Teege was born in 1970. Her mother is Monika Göth and her father is of Nigerian descent. When she was four weeks old her mother put her into an orphanage, which was run by nuns. The little black girl stood out from the other children. She was three years old when she placed with foster parents. For a while, his mother and grandmother visited her, but after her foster parents adopted her the visits stopped.
Jennifer struggled with depression in her late twenties, which she largely attributed to her mother abandoning her at a young age. By the time she was in her thirties, her life had become balanced, she had married and had two sons. Then, unexpectedly at the age of 38, the past broke into her life, for she learned that her mother had hidden from her that her grandfather was a notorious war criminal.
In 2008 you made a shocking discovery. At it all happened when you opened up a book. Could you tell me what happened?
I went to the library in Germany, in Hamburg where I live. I was in the psychology section and saw a book on the shelf, it was a book by an author whose name I didn’t know. The title was: I have to love my father, don’t I? The book grabbed my attention, and I picked it up and I looked at the cover and there was a very small black and white photograph of a woman, but I did not recognize her. I started leafing through the pages of the book and I found some photographs. One photograph reminded me of my mother, my biological mother whom I haven’t seen for many years.
And then there was another picture of an older woman, and that picture reminded me of my biological grandmother. So in the end of that book there was also a summarization of some of the biographical details. And I knew some of these information from my adoption paperwork. So, I understood that the book that I was holding in my hand was not just a random book but it was the book that told the story of my biological mother and also of my biological grandmother.
In the very beginning in the library the shock was not the grandfather. First it was my mother who I haven’t seen for so many years, and suddenly there was a book that would probably provide me with many answers to unsolved questions.
When hours later I read the book, then I really understood the whole multitude of the book, and the family story. That it wasn’t just a book about my mother, that it was a family chronicle that also chronicled the story of my biological grandfather who many people do know because he was portrayed in the movie Schindler’s List by Ralph Fiennes. Lot of people know the fictional character of Amon Göth, but he was a war criminal, after the war he was hanged in Poland. And I was familiar with Amon Göth because I watched the movie. But I never had the slightest idea we were related that he was my biological grandfather. So this came as a complete surprise to me.
Did your adoptive family know?
My adoptive family didn’t know, which was something that I suspected in the beginning. I thought that if my biological mother did hid this secret from me, then maybe my adoptive family had knowledge and didn’t say anything, but no it wasn’t the case. My adoptive parents really didn’t know. Also the institution that was involved in the adoption process, they didn’t know either. You have to understand that at the time I was born in the 1970s the movie was not yet out. And Amon Göth and the war crimes that he commited was of course documented, but it was not like Himmler, Göring or Hitler. These names you come across immediately when you open up a history book. So they didn’t know anything.
When you later contacted your mother, what did she say, why didn’t she tell you the story?
She later explained to me that she thought that this would protect me, because if I wouldn’t know, then it wouldn’t somehow affect me and my life. Which is nonsense, if someone reads the book. Just because you don’t know something it can still affect you. And what is even worse that it affect you in a subconscious level. You don’t know what is there, but you feel that something is wrong. Hiding things, creates a toxic atomosphere and these family secrets when you hide them the result is very often disastrous. And my mother thought this would be helpful to hide it. But it wasn’t.
There was a lot of silences in your family. Is this something that is usual in Germany when it come to the war, to not really talk about it?
It was in the second generation; the perpetrators didn’t talk to their children. But this changed over the years. The silence in the families were never completely gone. Within the families to ask this uncomfortable question to your own relatives, a lot of people decided not to do so.
The most uncomfortable question you can ask let’s say your grandfather or granduncle is: did you kill someone? And you avoid asking these questions, maybe because you don’t want to hear the answer. This was very common, and it is still very common.
Some of the people who lived during that time are still alive, but won’t be for longer. A new generation come with no relatives who lived at that time. The wall of silence that existed is less relevant now. But my main focus and what I think we need to concentrate, and this is the next step in education is that we need to focus on past to implement what we learnt into the present, and hopefully into the future.
There is a different kind of silence. There are so many people, when there is an article about the Holocaust, or a new book or film, and they immediately jump and say, “oh we should move on, we heard too much about this.” What would you say to these people?
I don’t agree with them. I think we need to listen, and say it a couple of times more. Let’s not forget there are still people who still utterly deny it. We need talk about it. As a German it is not only that we need to know, we also need to spread our knowledge. What we have to be careful of is that we make clear for our next generation that they are responsible how to deal with the past, but they are not guilty. I always say you cannot inherit guilt. You can inherit responsibility, and they do so as Germans, but also as a human being to make sure that this does not happen again. What is important is not to deny, to have the knowledge, and it is very important to honour the victims.
The world is changing so quickly is to transfer the knowledge and learn the lessons for the future. And the world how it looks nowadays is a really scary place.
On the question of inheritance. The fear of inheriting evil is a very powerful feeling. You write about this in your book, that some people who had Nazi ancestry went to the extreme to illuminate their bloodline, which in itself echoes the Nazi ideology that it is all in the blood. What do you think of this fear?
I describe it in the book because it is very common. I was also struggling with irrational thoughts also. I didn’t have any theory about it, but it felt so scary. In my case when you grow up with having so limited knowledge about your biological family and then suddenly you have something. As I write in the book I looked in to the mirror and saw familiarities. I wanted to let people know how irrational my thinking was. I have similarities in my face, so what does this mean? And yes I was scared but I want people to understand that you don’t have to be scared, that even if you have similar psychical features, it doesn’t say anything who you are, and about your character.
There is no Nazi gene, this is a sentence a I repeat often, and this is the message I have. I came to this conclusion. But this is only the result of my inner struggle.
Have you met anyone else with a similar background? Do you know anything about Amon’s other children?
I know a little bit about them. My mother met them. I think one of them even died, but I am not sure. But there is a lot of exchange with people who have a similar story.
Because almost everyone in Germany belongs to a family with a Nazi past. There are different stories, and different struggles, but in the same time very similar.
My story speaks to so many people, because as unique as it seems at first glance, it is a very universal story, with so many themes and struggles that people can identify with.
In your book you write about your grandmother Ruth Irene Adler who you loved very much as a child. She lived in the Plasow villa with Amon during the war. Was discovering her past more difficult than Amon’s because she was someone you knew and not a stranger from the past?
We were not very close because I only saw her sporadically. She was important to me, because as a little girl my mother, with whom I had a difficult relationship from the start, but my grandmother was really kind, at least to me. And I felt protected when I was with her. My mother had an abusive husband, and that environment was difficult for a little girl. So my grandmother was a safe haven for me, quite literary. In my memories she was someone I really liked. So it was very disappointing to find out later that with having so little good memories of my childhood regarding my mother and I was shattered by finding out what different she was. And it was not like she changed, but that there was certain aspects of her personality I did not know as a child. I needed to intergrate this to the image that I had over the years, and this was very difficult.
I write extensively about my relationship with her, so the reader can understand why Amon Göth is not a historical figure for me. Yes he is, and now I see him more with a distance, but emotionally bonding with my grandmother, not understanding how can you love someone like Amon Göth. I also write about at length, because she is yes my grandmother, but she stands, or she represents the vast majority of the people at that time who supported a system. I mean she went to extreme, and supported Amon Göth by living with him next to a concentration camp. But after the war she wasn’t convicted.
So in a legal sense she wasn’t guilty but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t guilty. In my eyes she was, because she didn’t helped, she didn’t do enough. She represents the majority who followed the system.
But it is not just about those who lead, but also those who follow them, who supports them. That was how the whole system was able to function. There were so many people who followed. They bystanders. For my grandmother it was more than that.
If she still lived when you found out, what would you have asked her?
I really would have liked a conversation. Just talk to her, to hear what she has to say. Because unfortunately she left a suicide note but no word of regret. It’s something that is for me so wrong, I wish I would know more. In her last interview she seemed unrepentant. She was very sick at that time. She had lung disease and she had difficulty to breath. I know when she gave the interview she took her own life afterwards. Maybe she was overwhelmed but that is just speculation I do not know. That’s why I wish I could of talked to her. And also because when I saw her last I didn’t know that would be the final time. I didn’t know that after the adoption I would not see my biological family. The ties were cut so severely it was so abrupt.
Did you grandmother talk about the war with your mother?
What my mother says that it wasn’t like they never talked about the war. The narrative was wrong. About her father my mother had some information, they did talk, but he was presented in a completely different light.
So my mother thought that he was war hero. She didn’t have the knowledge that we have, labor camp to my mother did not sound that bad. She thought it was just a camp where people were sent to work. So, she had no clue what her father really did. And my grandmother didn’t explain what was really going on.
Your story is filled with coincidences, and fateful moments, one of the most interesting things in your story is that you ended up living in Israel. How did you end up there?
Was it fate or was it coincidence? I don’t have an ultimate answer to it. It all depends how you look at it. Because you could say I went to Israel, because I met a girl in Paris, and we became friends, and she invited me so I came for a vacation, then I met an Israeli man I fell in love with. And the I started studying there. But if you look at it from now backwards with knowing everything about me…I understand so much about the Jewish faith, it also gave me the opportunity when I was in Jerusalem for the book fair and presented the book, not only be able to talk to people in English but in Hebrew, which made it for me even easier to connect. We couldn’t come more different angles, from the victims side and the perpetrators side, and language was a nice way to share something, and be able to bond. If you believe in fate this was sort of a preparation that prepared me for that moment when at the bookfair I wanted to share my story in Jerusalem.
I developed friendships with survivors. I have a really good friend in Israel, she is a survivor. Despite the age difference that we have. She was on Schindler’s list, and me being the granddaughter of Amon Göth, and yet we developed a strong bond, that goes beyond that fact. We like each other. Even with knowing everything it is possible. It is like a symbol of reconciliation even though the two of us would never say so.
You have come a long way since your discovery in 2008. Do you feel like you are out of Amon Göth’s shadow? Do you feel free of him?
I think I quiet successfully made something good of something that felt seemed to be really negative and implemented into my life, and I teach I can educate people and tell them my story. But I paid quiet a high price. I suffered with a variety of autoimmune diseases, which probably don’t come from nowhere. This is not black and white, it has a lot of different nuances. It is a part of my life that is there and will be there.