This morning’s Eleventh Stack post contains images and information readers may find upsetting. History, alas, is hardly ever kind, but the author believes you should decide for yourself whether or not you’re up for that this morning before you read on.
I know, it’s Monday. You’re not feeling it. On the bright side, at least you didn’t discover a horrible secret in your family’s past while visiting your local library.
If that sounds a bit far-fetched, consider this: it actually happened to Jennifer Teege, who was browsing a library in Munich when suddenly her mother’s name jumped out at her from a book jacket. Curious, Teege took the book down from the shelf and started reading; what she found there changed her life forever.
Teege is the granddaughter of Nazi concentration camp commander Amon Goeth, known as “the butcher of Płaszów,” who was hanged in 1946 for his war crimes, and whose story you are most likely somewhat familiar with from watching Schindler’s List. This revelation threw her, as you might expect, into a deep depression, but one from which she emerged, determined, to confront her ancestry and write My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past. With the help of co-author Nikola Sellmair and translator Carolin Sommer, Teege uses her family’s story to open up a dialogue on the larger issue of how the children and grandchildren of Nazi party members have–or haven’t–coped with their forefathers’ gruesome legacies.
Teege tells her story in a blunt, no-nonsense fashion, sticking to what she learns and how she learns it, without indulging in self-pity or making apologies for her mother or grandmother (Goeth’s mistress). Like a detective she traces the available resources and interviews the remaining living parties, including her mother Monika. She also visits Płaszów at length, physically walking through the spaces where so many of the facts she learns are set. And while it’s difficult reading, it’s an important effort. As Teege knows all too well, eventually everyone who was alive to bear witness to the atrocities of World War II will be dead, and it’s up to those of us who remain behind to make sure the horrors never fade.
Nikola Sellmair’s contributions to the book enhance the story, not just by giving us a psychological break from Teege’s struggles, but also by discussing the collective post-war psyche of Germany, and describing how other descendants have, or haven’t, coped with their family heritage. Sellmair is also able to describe Teege and her actions in a way Teege herself is too biased to realize, giving the reader a fully-rounded portrait of what’s going on.
Without giving away the ending, I can tell you that what moved me most about Teege’s story was the way that even the most difficult past can, with effort, be met with the hope of grace and reconciliation. That no matter what our ancestors have done, we can always live differently. That family is not just something we’re born into – it’s also something we choose. And that telling our stories is the only way to bring the skeletons out of the closets where they are hiding and expose them to research and the historical record.
Teege and Sellmair also include a list of books and films interested readers may find helpful for further discussion and inquiry. Some of these are available in the library’s collection, including:
My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders–an Intimate History of Damage and Denial, Norbert and Stephen Lebert.
The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History, Katrin Himmler.
The Cap: The Price of a Life, Roman Frister.
Hitler’s Children, Chanoch Ze’evi.
Inheritance: A Nazi Legend and the Journey to Change It , James Moll.
Road to Rescue: The Untold Story of Schindler’s List, Mietek Pemper.
Personally, I like my books the way I like my coffee: bitter, strong, and designed to get me moving and thinking. I highly recommend My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me to those who feel much the same. Here’s to the personal and the political, be they ever so difficult to swallow.