Fronteras Extra: Discovering Family's Nazi Past
In her late 30s, Jennifer Teege made the surprising discovery that she was the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Poland. She wrote about her struggles coming to terms with her family history in the book “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.”
Teege’s grandmother Ruth Irene Kalder lived with Goeth in the villa near the camp.
Even after Goeth’s execution in 1946, Kalder defended his behavior to Teege’s mother Monika Hertwig. Teege said the Holocaust was not something people talked about much after the war.
“It was something very specific about that time.” Teege said. “In Germany, we say there was a wall of silence. She (Monika) would ask, but she would not get answers, either from her own mother or from society. It was taboo. ...Today, Holocaust education is mandatory in Germany in the school education system.”
Teege was sent to an orphanage as an infant and formally adopted at age 7. When Teege made the discovery about her Nazi past, she found it difficult to share the news with her adoptive family.
“Suddenly, out of the blue, years later, the biological family was back at the focus,” Teege said. “It was difficult for them because they didn’t know what is their role or what’s the place for them now. That also made them a bit insecure.
“Of course it was emotional, but they are academic people who more talked about facts than about feelings. We needed some time to really sort this out.”
Up until her adoption, Teege had sporadic contact with her birth mother and grandmother. She, however, had no knowledge of her birth father’s whereabouts. In her 20s, she began her search. And she found him.
“When I met him for the very first time, it was not the way you expect it if you watch Oprah, and you see the long lost relative, and you hug, and everything is fine,” Teege said. “It was difficult. We also had a break for a couple of years when we didn’t see each other.”
Teege said they are once again in contact.
“I have some half siblings. He’s married now with a German woman. We all traveled together to Nigeria two years ago, which was a very, very interesting trip,” she said. “It’s also for me new to have space to give the paternal side more room and more space because I was so preoccupied with my mother, my grandfather, my biological grandmother.”
Teege is married and has children. They were in preschool when she made her discovery, and she took some time before revealing their family background.
“Step by step I told them,” Teege said. “Now they are older. What was most important is the toxic power of the family secret was lifted. It’s not that they need to know every detail … but what was to me, personally important, was the toxic power that needed to go.”
Teege’s children are now teenagers and they don’t feel as close a connection to Amon Goeth as she did.
“In their case, it’s their great-grandfather. There’s more distance. Therefore, I do think they can deal with the situation in an appropriate way,” she said.
Teege added she still has a complicated relationship with her mother. “I don’t see my mother at the moment. She cut ties again. I always say my door is open,” she said, “but she needs to step through, not I.”
Norma Martinez can be reached via email at email@example.com and on Twitter @NormDog1