Jennifer Teege’s memoir opens at the pivotal moment of her life. At 38 years old, she is browsing in Hamburg’s central library when she picks up a book about the Nazi concentration commandant Amon Goeth. Goeth was the sadistic “butcher of Płaszów” portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. He was also — Teege realizes as she leafs through the library book and recognizes family photographs and names — her own grandfather.
The daughter of Monika Goeth and a Nigerian student, Teege was given up for adoption soon after her birth. Although she continued to have regular contact with her biological mother and grandmother as a young child, neither one discussed the family’s history. Teege’s belated discovery throws her into emotional tumult and leads her to reexamine her relationships and family ties. What can she, “with dark skin and friends all over the world, have to do with such a grandfather?”
In honest, direct, and absorbing prose, Teege and coauthor Nikola Sellmair confront highly personal repercussions of the Holocaust. While the title My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past alludes to the most shocking aspect of Teege’s story, the book quickly moves beyond the merely sensational. As horrible a character as Amon Goeth is, he is also easy for Teege to categorize: she sees him unequivocally as a criminal. More complex — and more emotionally charged — are her changing perceptions of other family members. As a girl, Teege adored her biological grandmother. Now she must reconcile her childhood memories with the woman who was Goeth’s mistress and passively condoned his atrocities. Teege’s research into family history also reawakens a suppressed feeling of alienation from her adoptive parents. Eventually she realizes that they are still struggling with their own parents’ involvement in the Holocaust.
Another poignant segment of the book addresses Teege’s worries about the effects of her discovery on her two close friends from Israel. When all three were students, they were drawn together by common interests; “my nationality and the past,” Teege writes, “were irrelevant.” Now she wonders if her friends will feel as though she has unintentionally betrayed them. A return to Israel marks a turning point in Teege’s quest for resolution and inner peace.
Although the initial draw of Teege’s memoir may be her unexpected connection to Amon Goeth, the book’s real triumph is in its nuanced, universally appealing portrait of an individual searching for her place in the world. Just as Teege’s chance encounter with a library book led her to question the fundamental assumptions of her life, so too the reader of My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me will be forced to reconsider the wide-ranging impact of past injustices on present-day relationships.
Becca Kantor is Jewish Book Council’s editorial director. She received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. A Philadelphia native, Becca spent a year in Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, then lived in England and Germany before moving to New York. She is currently working on her first novel.