Jennifer Teege was sent to an orphanage at just four weeks old and for 38 years knew little about her family background. Then, after a chance discovery in a library, she uncovered the horrifying truth – now documented in a new book. Etan Smallman reports
Jennifer Teege had been asking questions her entire life.
Born in 1970 to a German mother, after she had a brief affair with a Nigerian man, Teege was sent to an orphanage at just four weeks old. She had limited contact with her mother and grandmother, until being formally adopted by a couple at the age of seven.
Growing up, Teege couldn’t help but wonder about the biological family she’d lost contact with. Then, seven years ago at the age of 38, the answers came in a terrifying deluge – along with a bombshell revelation about the grandmother she had loved as a small child, and the grandfather she had never met.
Idly perusing the shelves of Hamburg central library, Teege happened across one of the collection’s 350,000 books, a tome with a red cover.
Flicking through its pages, she realised with a start that a photo of a woman in a summer dress perfectly matched the picture she had of her grandmother, Ruth Irene. What’s more, the photo of the author on the cover of the book – entitled I Have To Love My Father, Right? – looked familiar, too. It was that of her birth mother, Monika.
“It was this immediate physical shock,” she tells me. “I felt this physical need to just lie down. I had to leave the library.
“I became weak because I knew that this book would give me so many answers. When you grow up with so many open questions in your head, this is something that turns your life upside down.”
Teege was so startled to find any information about her family that the subject matter of the book almost passed her by completely.
It only hit her as her husband drove her home. Her grandfather, Amon Goeth, had been a Nazi: the commandant of Plaszow concentration camp.
Teege recalls staying up all night researching his story online and feeling like she had “entered a chamber of horrors”. She discovered that Goeth, called “the Butcher of Plaszow” was “a man who killed people by the dozen and, what is more, enjoyed it”.
He quickly rose through the Nazi ranks, slaughtering 2,000 Jews during the clearing of the Krakow Ghetto and up to 12,000 as the chief of Plaszow (a 200-acre camp built by the Nazis on top of a Jewish cemetery near Krakow, Poland).
Goeth trained his two dogs, a Great Dane and an Alsatian called Rolf and Ralf, to tear humans apart and would often ride around the camp on his white horse wearing white gloves and a white scarf. His costume was a sign to the prisoners that he was in a particularly sadistic mood.
The Polish prosecutor at his trial in 1946, described him as “a man who has become a legend in his lifetime for being the modern incarnation of the biblical Satan”.
But Goeth’s special brand of horror was given lasting infamy by Steven Spielberg in the film Schindler’s List, with Ralph Fiennes playing the role.
His name has stuck in the public consciousness thanks to one scene in particular – where he takes potshots at prisoners from his bedroom balcony, described as “his personal form of morning exercise” in Teege’s own book, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me (an English translation of which has just been published in the UK to coincide with Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Holocaust remembrance day).
During that night of feverish internet searches, Teege, now 44, remembered having watched Schindler’s List in Israel. She spent four years there as a student and learnt to speak fluent Hebrew.
And by another astonishing coincidence, or twist of fate – Teege is still undecided – in the course of her research, she discovered that her biological mother was appearing in a TV documentary about Goeth’s death camp the following evening.
Teege desperately wanted to find an explanation for her grandfather’s behaviour. She assumed – hoped, even – that she would find “some traumatic incident in his childhood that would explain his cruelty”. But Goeth’s upbringing was perfectly normal.
Nor could she find any signs of remorse in either grandparent. Goeth’s final act was a Nazi salute and shout of “Heil Hitler!” before he was hanged in 1946.
Teege’s grandmother, Ruth, lived happily in Goeth’s camp villa as his loyal mistress, after the couple were introduced by Oskar Schindler. They never married but Ruth went to great efforts to take her fiance’s surname after his death, a name Teege herself had until her adoption at the age of seven.
Right up until the end, when she committed suicide in 1983, Ruth had a picture of Goeth hanging above her bed. She used to gush about her lover as “a real gentleman”. He had impeccable table manners, she remembered fondly.
According to one of Goeth’s Jewish former maids: “Most of the time, [Ruth] was busy lying around with a cucumber mask on her face. She would turn the music way up so that she couldn’t hear the shots.”
Spielberg portrayed her burying her head in the pillow while Goeth was shooting from his balcony.
Teege is keen to point out that, after the war, Ruth lived with an African and a gay man. “So she was open-minded. I have tried to analyse her. There’s so much complexity that you can’t define her.”
Teege was unable to leave the house for two weeks following her toxic discovery. She eventually sought help from a psychoanalyst who burst into tears during their first meeting.
But it wasn’t her grandfather’s atrocities that shook Teege most. Rather, it was her grandmother’s complicity.
The Nazi mistress was the person who “mattered most” to Teege when she was a fearful and neglected child – who held her hand and “radiated kindness” until she was adopted.
“Her character is so interesting,” Teege says. “She represents the majority of people during the war who followed the system.
“To differentiate yourself from my grandfather is very easy. Within my grandmother, it’s easier to see oneself. It begs the question: How would I have behaved?”
Teege, a married mother of two who has established a successful career in advertising, has wrestled with the notion that she has Goeth’s blood flowing through her veins.
She was disturbed by an article she read in 2010, detailing how Bettina Goering – the great-niece of Hitler’s second-in-command – had been sterilised so she would “not pass on the blood of a monster”.
“I feel a bit sorry for her,” says Teege haltingly. “This in my eyes is so fundamentally wrong. Because you can decide who you want to be, and to set a different example is better than to cut the blood line. Actually it was one of the quotes that inspired me to share my story with the public.”
One also gets the sense that, with her book, she is trying to reach out to her mother. Monika agreed to meet her following the library discovery, but has since shunned her daughter’s approaches. Teege exclaims with a smile: “I hope she has read it.”
She also insists that the story will always have relevance: “I hope that society has developed, but look what is happening now with Islamic State. I mean, there are people here from London – they grew up normally and they are following an ideology. There is still a danger out there that people follow blindly.”
Writing the book, along with copious therapy, has helped Teege come to terms with her poisonous inheritance. But it is also helping others.
“I met one survivor at my last event in Israel,” she says. “He was in the front row and during the Q&A, his daughter told me that he was a survivor from Plaszow and his father was the personal shoemaker of my grandfather. He said my grandfather was his worst nightmare as a child and he wasn’t sure at first whether he wanted to come to this event.
“In his words, he said, ‘You are my birthday present’.
“He was turning 80 the following week and he said he was really happy that he met me, because he could see that history does not have to repeat itself.”
- My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20)