Jennifer Teege is a living manifestation of overcoming challenges to live a full and rewarding life. This young lady was born to a German mother after she had had a brief fling with a Nigerian student. Monika Hertwig, nee Goeth, was struggling to make ends meet and working six days a week whilst trying to battle depression. After giving birth to Jennifer, she knew that she could not care for the infant on her own so she took the baby to a Catholic children’s home in Munich, called Salberg House.
Catholic nuns took her in and cared for her, for the first three years of her life. Jennifer’s mother visited her intermittently but when, at aged three, she was adopted her adoptive parents blocked all contact with her biological mother. Jennifer did not have contact with her mother for another 21 years until her half-sister contacted her and asked her to meet.
Teege’s mother had told her very little about her background and where she came from. So it was with shock and horror that she found a book, “I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I?”, in a Hamburg bookshop and on flipping through the pages she was astounded to discover that the book had been written by her mother and that she was the granddaughter of one of Nazi Germany’s most infamous killers, Amon Goeth, was the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp in occupied Poland.
She was utterly devastated to discover the evil that her grandfather had perpetrated and she was even more distraught thinking what her Israeli friends would think. Long before she found the book, she had been a student at the Sorbonne in Paris and had gone to visit Israel with a friend, Noa, she had met in art class.
She had missed her alarm and had missed her flight back to Germany so she stayed in Tel Aviv and began attending the local university there and she gained a degree in Middle Eastern and African studies and she also learned how to speak Hebrew. How would her friends treat her once they knew her background?
Before she could deal with friends or anyone or anything else she had to delve more into her own history and come to terms with who she was and what had happened in her past. She had always felt somewhat disconnected from her life as though something was missing and she had suffered depression. All this led her to find herself and to discover who was this German woman of mixed descent, who gained a degree from an Israeli university, had a good job and a loving family and had staunch Jewish friends whose ancestors were holocaust survivors but now discovered she was the granddaughter of a Nazi monster.
Teege resigned her advertising job and set out to discover who she was, eventually writing her own book, “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers her Family’s Nazi Past.” Soon after Teege found her mother’s book on that fateful day in 2008, she saw a documentary screened by PBS, called ‘Inheritance’ which dealt with the guilt carried by the children of Nazis.
The film crew had taken Monika Hertwig and Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a Jewish maid who had firsthand knowledge of Amon Goeth’s cruelty, back to Plaszow. Teege recalls that it was impossible for her to view the film in one sitting as it was not only horrific in terms of the detail it revealed but she could not deal with the intimate details of her mother’s life; a mother that had been missing in her own life.
Teege recalls that her mother looked “lost and lonely and appeared to be in a very fragile state”. Perhaps the film maker was looking for sensationalism as he put these two women together on the screen. Hertwig is shown dully repeating phrases that she had had drummed into her as a child, saying that Amon Goeth was justified in shooting the Jews as they spread infection diseases. Naturally this would have been too much for Jonas-Rosenzweig to handle and she is heard to say “Monika, please, stop. Stop right now.”
Hertwig had been completely brainwashed as a child and she could remember being soundly thrashed by her grandmother, Hertwig’s mother, Ruth Kalder, who was Goeth’s mistress, for asking too many questions. Kalder insisted that Goeth was a “war hero” and Hertwig grew up with completely the wrong idea of what her father was and did; that he was not a victim but an oppressor and a war criminal.
Teege had begun her research into her family and had visited Poland to see for herself where her grandfather had caused so much heartache and she battled to come to terms with all that she had found. She had her mother’s book, had seen the documentary and had done her research but she knew that she had to contact her mother again and get to know her personally.
She was very concerned about meeting her mother but when she did she found that her mother spoke of her grandfather as though he were still alive. Her mother was oddly reluctant to speak badly of Goeth as Hertwig felt it was disrespectful to her own mother to speak so of her father. Teege and Hertwig visited the grave of Teege’s grandmother, Ruth Kalder, who had committed suicide.
Teege said that her mother told her that she was living with the dead and Teege felt that she was having a great deal of difficulty living with the guilt of the sins committed by her father. Hertwig feels that she has to atone for the sins in some way or another. This is a fairly common occurrence and many children of Nazi oppressors have the same guilt but as Teege said, “My generation, we are different. We know the difference between responsibility and guilt.”
Teege openly states that she firmly believes that her grandfather would have slaughtered her if he had known about her as she is not moulded in the perfect Aryan image. She has seen the film ‘Schindler’s List’ which was about her grandfather’s crimes and whilst, when she first saw it, she thought it was a little unbelievable at the end, once she viewed it with a deeper understanding through the prism of her own life, she does not feel the need to watch the film again as she knows the story.
Teege has also researched her father’s story and has absorbed her African culture as well. Now she has come to terms with all that she has been through and will ensure that her two sons also understand the horrors in their family tree but she will also pass on the fact that the guilt is not theirs to bear.
It is remarkable that this young woman who has had to overcome not only the normal and average obstacles that life throws at one but some very remarkable obstacles as well; an unconventional family life, the revelation that her grandfather was one of the most reviled people in history and her own demons of depression and anxiety. She has worked bravely to come to terms with all of these challengers and should be looked up to as an example for us all. Teege is an inspiring figure and shows us how we too can overcome our problems and challenges.