The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion When the skeleton in the family closet is a Nazi

Teege in front of the walls of a former Jewish ghetto. (Courtesy of Experiment Publishing)

Deesha Philyaw is a co-founder of and a co-author, with her ex-husband, of “Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce.”

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me

A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past

By Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair

Translated from the German
by Carolin Sommer

The Experiment. 221 pp. $24.95

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.