Many of us think we know who we are, but every once in a while a surprise reveals we don’t know everything about our past. That’s what happened to Jennifer Teege when she discovered her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the real-life Nazi “Butcher of the Płaszów” concentration camp, portrayed in “Schindler’s List.”
Teege will talk about her extraordinary experience, as a guest of the 21st annual San Diego Jewish Book Fair, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15 at the Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive. Included in the $20.50 cost of admission will be a 5:30 p.m. screening of the film, “Inheritance,” which details the story of Monika Goeth, daughter of Amon, and Teege’s mother.
Teege was born in Germany to a German mother and Nigerian father. Her mother left her abusive father and placed the 4-week-old Jennifer in an orphanage. Her mother and grandmother made only occasional visits to see her.
“When I was 3, I went to live with a foster family who adopted me when I was 7-years-old,” Teege said. “I wasn’t sad. I felt lucky and happy that I got a foster family. It was better than being in the orphanage, and it was a loving family with two adopted brothers.”
Growing up in a happy home, Teege was able to make her own pathway. She lived in Israel for four years and became fluent in Hebrew. She earned a degree from Tel Aviv University in Middle Eastern and African studies. Later, she took a job in advertising.
At age 38, and married with two children, Teege made a trip to the library and picked up a book at random. After scanning through it, she was hit by a tornado — the realization her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the infamous Nazi commandant of Płaszów concentration camp, and her kind grandmother lived with him at the camp as well. “To discover this important piece of my identity was shocking by itself, but then learning the details I only understood after reading the book, made it even worse. I had no knowledge about this story from my family.”
She said it took some time before she broke the news to her husband and sons. “I was trying to cope with it myself, which took months and years,” she said. “I was getting help from a therapist and it wasn’t something I shared with my kids as they were only in preschool. But later in life I thought it was important to tell them because a family secret can become toxic due to guilt or shame. I believe it was better to lift these secrets so they could process it.”
After time, Teege co-partnered with journalist Nikola Sellmair to write her memoir, “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me; A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.”
“It wasn’t something I decided immediately, it was a process,” she said. “It’s an individual story, but with so many universal aspects that I thought it was worthwhile to share. I understood when I was in Israel that the story was bigger than myself. I hope people can understand why it’s important to see the difference between my biological grandfather and my character inside.”
For now, Teege intends on continuing her speaking tours, many of which attract concentration camp survivors. She said she finds the encounters are beneficial to her and those in attendance.
“This summer I was in New York and a woman over age 90 was there, a survivor,” Teege said. “We had a conversation, and she gave me a book she wrote about her life after the war. She came to Sweden, and later to the States, and despite all the past, has been able to have a full life. She’s learning ballroom dancing at 90. She hugged me and told me that my book gives her some closure.
“I met another survivor when I spoke in Israel. His daughter told me he was the son of the shoemaker who made my grandfather’s shoes. He shared all kinds of details with me about his experiences, and his family said he’d never done that before, and that I was his best birthday present. … These are only a few examples of how this book touches others and they touch me.”
Event tickets can be purchased at (858) 457-3030 or lfjcc.org and the Jewish Book Fair runs through Nov. 16. Details at sdjbf.org