‘My grandfather would have shot me’

Written By komlim puldel on Minggu, 05 April 2015 | 23.08

Closure ... author Jennifer Teege says her most significant exchanges are with Holocaust survivors. Picture: AP/Dan Balilty Source: Supplied

ONE summer afternoon six years ago, Jennifer Teege was killing time in her local library in Hamburg, Germany, when she came across a striking title: 'I Have to Love My Father, Don't I?'

She pulled the book from the shelf. On the cover was a photo of a weary-looking woman, and there, too, was the subtitle: The Life Story of Monika Goeth, Daughter of the Concentration Camp Commandant from 'Schindler's List.'

Teege couldn't believe it. Monika was her mother.

Estranged ... a screengrab shows Teege's mother, Monika Goeth, whose father was a Nazi. Picture: YouTube/POV Source: Supplied

At 38, Teege, half-black, was just discovering an improbable truth: Her grandfather was a Nazi.

"The very moment when I found the book, it was as if, from within, that I realised something exceptional was happening," Teege tells The New York Post. "I was very, very silent. It was like giving birth: You go into yourself, and the outer world disappears."

What happened after that, Teege can't quite remember. She knows she checked the book out, knows she called her husband to get her, knows she asked him to pick up their two children, but the details are lost to her. She hadn't even fully absorbed the meaning of the book — that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, "the butcher of Plaszow," his atrocities immortalised by Steven Spielberg.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family's Nazi Past is Teege's attempt to understand her ancestry and herself. First published in Europe in 2013, the book is being released in English next week.

She knows her story, and the way she feels about her grandfather, will surprise people. She's repulsed by him, but as a direct descendant, needs to believe that he wasn't genetically, irredeemably depraved.

"My grandfather was not pure evil," Teege says. "He was a human being. He often made wrong decisions, but he was someone who was once a child. You can't divide people into 'good' and 'bad.' "

After Teege found her mother's book, she went straight to her bedroom, closed the door, and read it in one sitting. When she emerged, she was in denial.

"It was such a huge amount of information," she says. "At that moment, I thought, 'I have to verify this. Who knows if it's the truth?' "

She went online. "For hours," she says. "I was reading everything I could find. Everything. Information about my mother, my grandfather, the Nazi Party."

Teege learned that the next night, German TV would broadcast Inheritance, a documentary about her mother and one of her grandfather's abused servants. The existence of this film, too, was a shock. Teege was long estranged from her mother, who had never told her of her disgraced lineage.

"I felt like, 'This is too much. Everything is beyond my control. I don't know what's happening, but it can't go on like this,' " she says.

Teege watched with her husband. When it was over, neither said anything. Teege was traumatised but fixated on the footage of her grandfather's execution, by hanging, in Krakow in 1946.

It took three tries. Goeth's last words were, "Heil Hitler."

"The scene where he was executed, and the rope was too short and they started to redo it — I thought, 'This is crazy,' " Teege says. "And then they did it again. I thought, 'I can't take it anymore.' "

Amon Goeth ... Teege is repulsed by him, but needs to believe that he wasn't genetically, irredeemably depraved. Picture: YouTube/POV Source: Supplied

Teege, who had suffered from depression since her mid-20s, felt on the verge of a breakdown. She couldn't get out of bed, couldn't stop crying. She had a miscarriage.

"I was thinking in circles," she says. "I couldn't function. I couldn't hold it together." She was petrified she had too much of her grandfather in herself.

Teege found a therapist, one who specialises in children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators. She began reading memoirs by other descendants of Nazis — a small genre in Germany — and began to dive into her past.

"I thought, 'It won't help anyone if I continue to live like this,' " Teege says. "I saw how much my mother was haunted by her past. I know the toxic power of a family secret."

And so Teege set out for Krakow, for the house where her grandparents lived — the one next to the Plaszow concentration camp Goeth ran, the one with the balcony where, for fun, he would fire his rifle at women with babies. He had trained his dogs, Rolf and Ralf, to tear people apart.

According to Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, 8000 people were murdered at Plaszow, most under Goeth's rule from February 1943 to September 1944.

"I want to see where my grandfather committed his murders," Teege writes. "I want to get close to him — and then put some distance between him and me."

Quickly, however, it was her grandmother who came to dominate her thoughts. Ruth Irene Kalder was a glamorous young woman, the daughter of a Nazi. She was 25 when she met the married Amon Goeth and was smitten.

"My grandmother, as I write about her, is the closest I let the reader look inside myself," Teege says. "She played a big role in my life."

It was her grandmother who took the most and best care of Teege, whose mother had abandoned her after giving birth. In 1970s Germany, it was common for struggling mothers to turn their children over to orphanages, which allowed liberal parental visitation. Monika herself was only 24 when she met Teege's father, a student from Nigeria.

The relationship didn't last, and Monika soon took up with a man who beat her brutally. "My first husband," Monika later said, "was just like Amon. I must have chosen him to punish myself."

Monika never knew her father. She was 10 months old when he was executed. But such is the torment of descendants of Nazi perpetrators, many of whom toggle between revulsion and love for their parents and grandparents. It was Ruth who stepped in.

Never knew Amon ... a screengrab from the documentary 'Inheritance' shows Monika Goeth as a child. Picture: YouTube/POV Source: Supplied

"Not only did I like my grandmother's character," Teege says, "but she gave me a safe place." Her grandmother was her idol: well-dressed, an ever-present cigarette in her hand, her apartment filled with books. Ruth wasn't affectionate with her granddaughter — no hugs and kisses — but Teege felt loved and secure with her, until the day she was adopted by another family.

Teege was 7, and she never saw her grandmother again. Her deepest wish had been that her grandmother would adopt her. She doesn't know why she didn't, yet doesn't harbour anger. She mainly feels love.

"She was not a grandmother who would have gotten on the floor and played with me," Teege says. "But she would always hold my hand. I'm addicted to that to this day, and I think that's why."

This is the same woman who, as documented in Teege's own book, saw 250 children torn from their parents at Plaszow, undressed and piled onto a truck for execution at Auschwitz; who, much later, said the Jews "weren't really people like us; they were so filthy"; who lounged around the house with a cucumber-and-yoghurt face mask, turning up her music so as not to hear Amon shooting and torturing his prisoners; who used the barracks and barbed wire of the camp as a backdrop for personal portraits, posing as if for Vogue.

After Goeth's execution, Ruth kept a photo of him over her bed for the rest of her life. She said she was never as happy again. "It was a wonderful time," she said. "My Amon was king. I was his queen." Her only regret? That those days at the concentration camp had come to an end.

In the early 1980s, Ruth sat for an interview with documentarian Jon Blair, who was working with Spielberg. She continued to defend herself, claiming little to no knowledge of what was going on.

Sadistic ... actor Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in the 1993 film 'Schindler's List'. Picture: Supplied Source: News Corp Australia

As for Amon, she said: "He was no brutal murderer. No more than the others. He was like everybody else in the SS. He killed a few Jews, yes, but not many. The camp was no fun park, of course."

The day after, Ruth, already ill, committed suicide. She overdosed on sleeping pills and left a self-pitying note. Teege has watched the interview over and over.

"When I found out who she was — who she also was, I would say — there was this feeling of love," Teege says. "What made it more complicated for me was that my mother always compared us.

She'd say, 'You're so similar.' It's not just good taste in clothes. It's also: How would I behave during the war? Who am I? What are my moral values?"

It's a question that pervades Teege's everyday life. Not much research has been done on the children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators, though some have intentionally remained childless.

Hermann Goering's grand-niece Bettina had herself sterilised; she was afraid to continue the bloodline of a "monster."

Others immerse themselves in Judaism, or Jewish culture, as Teege's mother did. She took up ancient Hebrew, as penance.

Curiously, long before she ever knew the truth, Teege moved to Tel Aviv in her 20s. She fell in love with the city and its inhabitants, and it was there she saw Schindler's List for the first time, never realising the sadistic Nazi played by Ralph Fiennes was her own grandfather.

The film itself had not much impact on her. "Of course, it was touching and moving," Teege says. "But I had no — I felt not connected to the movie."

Her mother remains haunted by her family legacy, and while she has sat for interviews, she refuses to speak to her daughter. Teege says she has no idea why.

As for her grandfather, Teege remains ambivalent. She doesn't believe Amon Goeth was among the worst of the Nazis.

"If you look in books, his name does not appear as frequently as Himmler's," she says. "The importance he got is because of Schindler's List, so he became, besides Hitler, the face of the perpetrators."

Yet, she admits, Spielberg got his sadism right. "My grandfather was not someone who gave orders," she says. "He was someone who enjoyed killing people."

Today, Teege travels the world, speaking about her experience. She says her most impactful exchanges are with Holocaust survivors. She believes the book, and her story, has brought closure. "Not only for me," she says. "It's closure for them."

And if her grandfather were alive today, Teege says, she would sit with him. "I am a person who believes in dialogue," she says. "And that even if you have different positions, one could at least listen."


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