My Grand­fa­ther Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Dis­cov­ers Her Fam­i­ly’s Nazi Past

Jen­nifer Teege and Niko­la Sell­mair; Car­olin Som­mer, trans.

  • Review
By – March 16, 2015

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 the edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and its annu­al print lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade. She received a BA in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and an MA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. Bec­ca was award­ed a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to spend a year in Esto­nia writ­ing and study­ing the coun­try’s Jew­ish his­to­ry. She lives in Brooklyn.

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