Jennifer Teege’s Horrifying Discovery

Jennifer Teege (B&W photo of Amon Goeth)

When Jennifer Teege, a German-Nigerian woman, randomly picked up a library book off a shelf, her life changed forever. Recognizing images of her mother and grandmother in the book, she discovered a horrifying fact that no one had ever shared with her: Her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the vicious Nazi commandant depicted by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, a man known and despised the world over.

Although raised in an orphanage and eventually adopted, Teege had some contact with her biological mother and grandmother as a child. Yet neither revealed that Teege’s grandfather was the Nazi “butcher of Plaszów,” executed for crimes against humanity in 1946. The more Teege reads about Amon Goeth, the more certain she becomes: If her grandfather had met her—a black woman—he would have killed her.

Teege’s discovery sends her, at age 38, into a severe depression. My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past details her quest to unearth and fully comprehend her family’s haunted history. Her research takes her to Krakow—to the sites of the Jewish ghetto her grandfather “cleared” in 1943 and the Plaszów concentration camp he then commanded—and back to Israel, where she herself once attended college, learned fluent Hebrew and formed lasting friendships. Teege struggles to reconnect with her estranged mother, and to accept that her beloved grandmother once lived in luxury as Goeth’s mistress at Plaszów.

Ultimately, Teege’s resolute search for the truth leads her, step by step, to the possibility of her own liberation. The chronicle of her struggle with her haunted past unfolds in her memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, co-written with journalist Nikola Sellmair and newly translated from German.

Teege visits her grandparents’ house in the Płaszów neighborhood of Krakow, Poland. It is the only dilapidated house on quiet Heltmana Street. And she writes – there is a coldness that creeps into your bones. And a stench. 

Over a year has gone by since I first found the book about my mother in the library. Since then I have read everything I could find about my grandfather and the Nazi era. I am haunted by the thought of him, I think about him constantly. Do I see him as a grandfather or as a historical character? He is both to me: Płaszów commandant Amon Goeth and my grandfather.

When I was young I was very interested in the Holocaust. I went on a school trip from Munich to the Dachau concentration camp, and I devoured one book about the Nazi era after another, such as When Hitler Stole Pink RabbitA Square of Sky and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. I saw the world through Anne Frank’s eyes; I felt her fear but also her optimism and her hope.

You can read the entire piece my blog came from in – my Jewish Detroit. I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew in my DNA and have always felt drawn to Jewish culture. I would like to read her book sometime. Also because I am interested in learning more about the experience of Black people. In the USA, we have much to learn and white supremacy is a threat, slavery still exists only now the plantations have been replaced by prisons.

Glad I Was

1997 with my adoptee parents, apologies for the blurry quality

With Thanksgiving on my mind, I was remembering an email from my mom in which she told me she had to stop doing a family tree on Ancestry because it just wasn’t “real.” Both of my parents were adopted. Then, she added “glad I was” but that never really seemed genuine to me and the more I’ve learned about adoption and the trauma of separating a baby from its mother, the more I doubt she sincerely was grateful that it had happened, yet that was the reality and there was no way to change that. In a weird way though, I learned to be grateful that both of my parents had been adopted because otherwise, I would not exist and I am grateful for the life I have lived.

Learning my parents’ origin stories (they both died clueless), which was also my own ancestors’ stories brought with it a deep sense of gratitude for me, that I had not been given up for adoption when my mom discovered she was pregnant with me. By the ways of that time in history (early 1950s), she should have been sent away to have and give me up, only to return to her high school in time to graduate (she was a junior at the time of my conception and birth). The photo I have at the top of my blog are the pictures I now have of each of my original grandmothers holding one or the other of my parents as infants.

I continue to be grateful that I grew up with the parents who conceived me and then raised me throughout my childhood. I’ve heard many adoptees say that having biological, genetic children of their own made them fully aware of what being adopted had taken from them. At least, my parents had each other. I do continue to credit my dad’s adoptive parents with preserving me in our family. They were also a source of financial support for my parents during my earliest years. First, giving them space in their own home and me a dresser drawer bassinet. Then, an apartment in their multi-family building until my dad had saved up enough and was earning enough working shifts (and sometimes two shifts in a row) at an oil refinery to buy a house for our family.

In 2014, I experienced the last Thanksgiving with my parents. I knew their health was declining but I still expected to have yet another Thanksgiving with them in 2015. However, my mother passed away in late September and my father only 4 months later. They had been high school sweethearts and had been married over 50 years. My dad just didn’t find life worth continuing on with after his wife died. I knew that in the days after her death but then he sucked it up and tried. One morning, he simply didn’t wake up. He died peacefully with a bit of a smile on his face. I think he must have seen my mom waiting for him to join her.

That last Thanksgiving with my parents

Tapping Into The Origin Story

My Origin Story. Certainly, discovering that has been true for me as I learned about my adopted parents origins and meeting biological, genetically related family for the first time at well over 60 years old. Learning this became more real than anything else that I had previously believed about my life. And this had indeed changed my focus as far as writing goes.

Before I chose to be born of these parents, I must have known they were both adoptees and that they had been separated from the parents who conceived them. This then really is my origin story. This became the north star of my day, constantly pulling me and allowing me to bring this eternal something into time.

I know not all attempts at a reunion for people impacted by adoption turn into happily ever after stories. Mine didn’t really. I mean it didn’t turn into relationships with a lot of substance but they were real ones – after living a deception really – all my life.

If you embark on this quest, you will see there are these little, tiny moments along the course of your lifetime that have allowed you to see beyond the story you could not know before. It impresses upon you all the time and encroaches upon your awareness. It is the real reality and while these may seem like little tiny moments, they are not really little. Fall in love with these moments. Yes, a part of you will probably be nervous about how you will be received. That’s not the truth of what your quest is really about, even if it seems that way. These moments of touching your origin story, will guide your steps, your thoughts, your conversations, your deeds and you will bring into everything you are doing, this love, beauty and intelligence that is seeking to move you to your goal.

Notice when suddenly, grace appears.

I was always interested in knowing where my parents actually did come from. Then, one day, my cousin called to tell me that she had obtained her father’s (my uncle, my mom’s brother) adoption file. This was something I had long wanted to do regarding my mom, who had been denied her own adoption file when she was seeking that. Now, I knew that it was possible.

So, suddenly, something happens and the wall is gone and regardless of how it actually turns out okay you are still here, okay, and still alive with a wholeness you lacked before. It was that moment when I knew that I had achieved this goal.

If you embark on this journey, you will have to do something but an energy will also be pulling you forward. You will find that the obstacles, hindrances, and the obstructions you thought were there, actually have no power over you. With persistence and determination, you will get where you are hoping to go.

The vision of becoming whole becomes more real than the circumstances you knew before you began. I know. I didn’t expect that to happen to me but it did. While I still love the people who played the role of grandparents in my life until they died, when I think of “my” grandparents now, I think of those people (and the people they came from and the people who have come from them) as my “real” family. Even if I lack that lifetime of experiences with them.


The Controversy Over Beloved

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved was mentioned on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday night. I had no idea why it was even mentioned but I checked my Netflix list and saw that we had not seen the movie, so I added it. Then, this morning I read on article in The Guardian titled – The Republicans’ racial culture war is reaching new heights in Virginia by Sidney Blumenthal and my interest was peaked.

My mom was born in Virginia. You could almost say it was an accident but it was not. My mom was adopted and for my entire growing up years, I thought she was born in Memphis TN and was adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. That latter part is correct but Memphis was not her birthplace. That is what my adoptive grandparents were led to believe and then later the TCHS muddled their way through an explanation. My mom’s grandfather’s family did immigrate into the US at Virginia from Scotland prior to the Revolutionary War which some of our kin actually fought in. My grandmother’s father sent her there to Virginia to give birth to my mom away from gossiping locals in their small rural town East of Memphis. I suspect there were still some family ties living there at the time. My mom’s father seemed to my grandmother’s family to have abandoned her at 4 months pregnant. I prefer to keep a kinder perspective on that man, full of sorrow after losing a wife and a son to untimely deaths, and this perspective was softened after meeting my cousin who shares with me this man as a grandfather. I cannot ever really know the reason why he left (though I do have theories) or why he didn’t come to my grandmother’s aid when she returned to Memphis with my baby mom. I just have to let the questions be forever unanswered.

It turns out that Glenn Youngkin who is running for governor on the Republican side of things has made this novel by Morrison his last campaign stand. Of course, there is more to the story than that and the “more” has to do with Virginia history (which I will admit that I am still somewhat ignorant regarding). Youngkin’s campaign has contrived a brand-new enemy within, a specter of doom to stir voters’ anxieties that only he can dispel: the Black Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and her novel Beloved.

Youngkin waded into the murky waters of racial politics. He offered himself as the defender of schoolchildren from the menace of critical race theory, even though the abstruse legal doctrine is not taught in any Virginia public school. Youngkin then seized upon a novel racial symbol. The Pulitzer prize-winning novel is about the psychological toll and loss of slavery, especially its sexual abuse, and considered one of the most important American literary works. And there is a history to the issue in Virginia.

Somewhat disingenuously Youngkin has explained it in a campaign ad this way. “When my son showed me his reading material, my heart sunk,” Laura Murphy, identified as “Fairfax County Mother”, said in the Youngkin ad. “It was some of the most explicit reading material you can imagine.” She claimed that her son had nightmares from reading the assignment in his advanced placement literature class. “It was disgusting and gross,” her son, Blake, said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” As it happens, in 2016 Murphy had lobbied a Republican-majority general assembly to pass a bill enabling students to exempt themselves from class if they felt the material was sexually explicit. Governor McAuliffe vetoed what became known as “the Beloved bill”.

“This Mom knows – she lived through it. It’s a powerful story,” tweeted Youngkin. Ms Murphy, the “Mom”, is in fact a longtime rightwing Republican activist. Her husband, Daniel Murphy, is a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington and a large contributor to Republican candidates and organizations. Their delicate son, Blake Murphy, who complained of “night terrors”, was a Trump White House aide and is now associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which sends out fundraising emails.

The offending novel is a fictional treatment of a true story with a Virginia background, a history that ought to be taught in Virginia schools along with the reading of Beloved. In 1850, Senator James M Mason, of Virginia, sponsored the Fugitive Slave Act. “The safety and integrity of the Southern States (to say nothing of their dignity and honor) are indissolubly bound up with domestic slavery,” he wrote. In 1856, Margaret Garner escaped from her Kentucky plantation into the free state of Ohio. She was the daughter of her owner and had been repeatedly raped by his brother, her uncle, and gave birth to four children. When she was cornered by slave hunters operating under the Fugitive Slave Act, she killed her two-year-old and attempted to kill her other children to spare them their fate. Garner was returned to slavery, where she died from typhus.

In the aftermath of her capture, Senator Charles Sumner, the abolitionist from Massachusetts, denounced Mason on the floor of the Senate for his authorship of the bill, “a special act of inhumanity and tyranny”. He also cited the case of a “pious matron who teaches little children to relieve their bondage”, sentenced to “a dungeon”. He was referring to Margaret Douglass, a southern white woman who established a school for Black children in Norfolk, Virginia. She was arrested and sent to prison for a month “as an example”, according to the judge. When she was released, she wrote a book on the cause of Black education and the culture of southern rape. “How important, then,” she wrote, “for these Southern sultans, that the objects of their criminal passions should be kept in utter ignorance and degradation.”

Virginia’s racial caste system existed for a century after the civil war. In 1956, after the supreme court’s decision in Brown v Brown of Education ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, Virginia’s general assembly, with Confederate flags flying in the gallery, declared a policy of massive resistance that shut down all public schools for two years. The growth of all-white Christian academies and new patterns of segregation date from that period. Only in 1971 did Virginia revise its state constitution to include a strong provision for public education.

Youngkin well understands the inflammatory atmosphere in Virginia in which he is dousing gasoline and lighting matches. Branding Beloved as sexually obscene was always an abstracted effort to avoid coming to terms with slavery, especially its sexual coercion. Parental control is Youngkin’s abstract slogan for his racial divisiveness. Beloved is his signifier to the Trump base that he is a safe member of the cult, no longer an untrustworthy corporate type. Youngkin’s reflexive dependence on the strategy reveals more than the harsh imperatives of being a candidate in the current Republican party. It places him, whether he knows or not, cares or not, objects or not, in a long tradition in the history of Virginia that the Commonwealth has spent decades seeking to overcome.

To this political post, I add an admission. My maternal line roots are ALL Confederate – on both her mother’s and her father’s side. It is a fact that I am personally not proud of, even if I had nothing to do with it. I still own that it is a part of my personal family history – sadly.

Reunion Can Be A Wonderful, Wonderful Thing

It has become very common these days for adoptees to search for their original families and more often than not they are surprisingly successful. One note about today’s story – the word “reserve” refers to Canadian aboriginal reserves. It is a system of reserves that serve as physical and spiritual homelands for many of the First Nations (Indian) peoples of Canada. In 2011 some 360,600 people lived on reserves in Canada, of which 324,780 claimed some form of aboriginal identity.

Today’s story – I Found Her

For years I’ve wondered who my birth mother was, I would day dream about the indigenous life I would live if I was with my birth mom. I would be a different me. I was just a baby when they took us from her, both me and my brother. I was only 18 months when I was adopted and my brother was 4.

Today I was doing some research about my old last name and I found someone on LinkedIn that had my reserve in their bio and had the same last name. I emailed them, and found their Facebook page. They added me as a friend and promised to help me find out who my birth mother was. This person turned out to be my cousin. I took my original last name and filtered the friend’s list for girls with my original last name. I sent out a default message to all of them stating who I was and what I wanted to accomplish. “Please help me find my birth mom.”

Most agreed to help me. I had a sense that I was getting close. Then, I got a message from this lady who I knew was the right age, lived in the right reserve, had the right look. There was just a feeling about her that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She messaged me – “I know who your mom is. Call me.” And gave me her number. I called and she said, “I’m your mom.”

I couldn’t believe it and I started to cry with her. She told about how she was going through a hard time and couldn’t parent me and my brother. I also found out I have other siblings who I am trying to get in contact with. I’ve talked to my aunt who raised two of my siblings. My aunt got a call from my cousin telling her who I was and after that I got a call from my aunt. She told me she could have kept me and she felt guilty for sending me into foster care, instead of raising me with my other siblings. Of course, I’m hurt.

I won’t give away this chance to recover my wholeness. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. My mom has invited me to her house for coffee tomorrow. I’m feeling so weird about it. I am also meeting my aunt and cousins. This is unbelievable, the family I never had is coming back to me. I hunted for a long time and never got anywhere with the adoption agency, or the reserve itself. No one could tell me who I was until my biological mom said it herself. I’m still in shock.

It’s so much for my 22 year old brain to comprehend, that this is really happening. I can’t believe my messages got to the right people, and now I’m getting messages from my cousins that they are excited to meet me. I want this first meeting to go ok. My heart is beating so fast, it’s like something I can’t even comprehend. I found her !! I will always know who my birth mother is now. She can’t hurt me, because she can’t hold secret from me the information about who my original family is anymore. I think she was shocked that I messaged her.

Coincidentally, just yesterday I got this notification from an adoptee, Ashley Billings, who I follow – “What If I’m Never Found”. She ends with these thoughts – “We all want a fairy tale ending like we see in movies. Reality is that my story could be the farthest thing from a happy ending. I have always pictured big dramatic meetings for my birth parents in my head when I truly have no idea what the situation could be. I know all I can do is pray and trust that God has a plan for my adoption story.”

The Miracle of My Parent’s Marriage

Yesterday would have been my parent’s wedding anniversary had they still been living. I discovered when I was a middle school child that my mother conceived me out of wedlock. On their anniversary I would joke about taking a chance on them when I wanted to be born into this this life. That was because my mom was only a junior in high school and my dad had just started going to the university for higher education when they discovered my presence.

It took learning about my original grandparents (both of my parents were adopted) before it started dawning on me what a miracle it was that I was not given up for adoption. My mom’s adoptive parents were a banker and his socialite wife. Adoption was the most natural thing in the world within my family. My dad’s parents were humble entrepreneurs making draperies for wealthy people in a little shop in their home. They were also very religious. I’ve been going through old family letters (at least 30 years old) to clean out the clutter. Every letter from my dad’s adoptive parents has some religiosity in it.

During my own journey to know my actual roots (my parents died knowing next to nothing about their mid-1930s pre-adoption parents), I did realize how amazing that I was not also given up for adoption. I believe my mom’s adoptive parents would have been in favor of it. Somehow, I do believe it was my dad’s adoptive parents that preserved me in the family, though I cannot know this for certain. What I do know is that they took my young parents in for awhile and put me in a dresser drawer for a bassinet. I also know that when we were pre-school, we were living in an apartment of a 3 residence dwelling that my paternal grandparents owned.

My parents were high school sweethearts. It may be that they would have married anyway or maybe not. My dad could have fallen in love with someone else at the university or my mom with someone else in her high school. I did find preserved loved letters from that time among their belongings but did not keep them. I had read the story of a woman who’s mother had destroyed her own such letters. This person lamented that but her mother said they were personal between the two lovers. I didn’t read my parents’ letters though I did see one note by my mom worrying about how my dad would take the news that she was pregnant.

Sometimes I wish I had kept those letters. Sometimes I wish I had kept some of their early photos but I am getting older as are my two sisters and I thought I would just divide it up and turn it over to the grandchildren instead. I exist and I grew up in a loving family and that is enough I suppose.

The Pain of Family Feuds

I’ll let this story from my all things adoption group speak for itself.

I’m an adoptee that was adopted by my maternal grandparents at birth, my birth mom has always been in my life at different times and in different ways, our relationship now is very rocky, and I never saw much of my dad growing up.

When I was 6, my grandparents cut off all contact with my dad’s family. For years they told me that it wasn’t safe, or that they had no interest in seeing me, which wasn’t true – my grandparents actively threw out letters and cards from them.

I used to beg to see my family, when I was a young teen I started sneaking out to see my aunt, then my grandparents found out. I was grounded and stopped from leaving the house. I grew up remembering and loving these people who lived literally two miles away but missing out on a childhood with them.

I grew up with no racial mirrors and felt like I did something wrong to these people that I had fun memories with as a kid. One time I saw my aunt across a store and begged my grandma to say hi, but my grandma dragged me out of the store and said it wasn’t safe.

4 years ago, I reunified with my dad’s family locally and have an amazing relationship with them, and flew to California to see my uncle and meet my cousins for the first time, and eventually flew to New York. I was greeted with open arms, but it doesn’t make up for the 20 year gap of not having these people in my life. These are people I should’ve grown up with!

My aunt lives close to me and we talk, but I feel like a stranger in her house. I feel like I don’t belong here. My uncle is in town to visit with his kids, and I’ve been here all day, and decided to stay the night…for the first time at 28 years old, I’m spending the night with my aunt – something that most kids did growing up.

It’s 3 AM and I’m laying on her couch, unable to sleep because I don’t feel like I belong here, even though they treat me like we were never apart. I don’t know what the point of this post is…it’s just complicated, not many people understand my complex adoption trauma or seem to think that it’s somehow “less” because I was adopted by my grandparents, I should just shut up and be grateful for that.

I still feel like I’m in the fog. My grandparents have both died, and I have a hard time wrapping my thoughts and emotions around the trauma that two people I loved very much even so caused. I’m just trying to live with it.

Love What Matters

A friend wrote me yesterday after she saw my blog about her whole hearted love for her adopted grandchildren. I don’t doubt she does. I never doubted that my grandparents – all 4 of them – who adopted both of my parents, loved me as much as any grandparent ever could have. I can’t judge fairly my parents relationship with their adoptive parents. Certainly, it was our reality. And without a doubt I would not even exist had my parents not been adopted.

I will admit that at this point in my journey through life I don’t feel warm and fuzzy about adoptions – especially domestic infant adoptions from an unwed mother. I do understand that drug addiction results in children being removed from the parents and because I have experienced a spouse with a serious drug addiction, most likely accompanied by alcoholism, I do understand. I do believe that as a society, we could do a much better job of supporting people so that they might recover from addiction (not all will and that too is a reality) and to preserve their families intact but we don’t and that probably won’t dramatically improve in my lifetime.

I accept that adoption is unlikely to go away in my lifetime. I can continue to highlight those issues that I believe need reform, as I continue to learn more about the situation overall. I will admit I don’t KNOW all either. I do know that EVERY adoptee, whether they are aware of it or not, has some degree of separation wound. A feeling of abandonment and/or rejection. It is unavoidable. Sadly, some children are harmed and/or wounded by the parents who conceived them and/or the mother who gestated and birthed them. I won’t argue about that with anyone.

So this is simply an effort to clarify where I stand on the related issues.

My Maternal Adoptive Grandmother

1989 among the Missouri Azaleas

I spent the afternoon yesterday reading through a thick stack of letters that I wrote to my grandmother. When my grandmother died, for whatever reason, when my mom found these, she thought to send them to me. I wondered why but now I understand. My grandmother adopted my mom from Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society’s Memphis branch. I find it amazing that she kept all of these letters from me but they are very detailed about my marriage in the early days, what living in Missouri was like for me and what we were doing to promote our home-based business than I would have imagined. I wonder that I had that much time to write so much to her but then, there is only one, maybe two, in any given month and not even one for every month.

I could have been given up for adoption as my mom conceived me when she was only a junior in high school and not wed. My dad had graduated from the same high school the year before and had only just started attending the University of New Mexico at Las Cruces. I tend to credit his parents (he was adopted also) for preserving me in the family but as everyone who would know is now deceased, it is only a guess on my part. That is the reason I was born in Las Cruces and not El Paso Texas where my sisters were born.

I had the good fortune to chose to be born on this grandmother’s wedding anniversary. In January back in 1994, I acknowledged a memory she shared with me in a letter from her (I haven’t kept most, if any of hers to me). It was a “special memory” of hers about the sunlight shining upon me while she held me in her arms and some beautiful thought she had at that moment. It seems to have been a sign from God meant just for her and since I too believe in signs of that sort, I understood. I am now married to the man that I am because I received a physical, unmistakable sign to give him a bit more attention than I might have otherwise. Of course, discernment is very important when it comes to trusting the signs one notices.

In fact, it is quite clear in re-reading these very old letters from the early 1990s, that I was closer to this grandmother in my spiritual understandings than anyone else in my family. My dad’s parents were very conservative, traditional Church of Christ adherents. My mom was very much Episcopal and my dad wasn’t at all a church goer until all of us girls had left the home and then, he said to me that he went to “keep my mom company.” After she died, when I was there helping him with life in general, I went with him because he continued to go to their little church alone or with my youngest sister who was assisting him so he could remain in his home.

These letters are full of the most amazing details of my early marriage and life here in Missouri. I could share these things with this grandmother because she grew up in Missouri in a house much like the one I live in and an environment that is very similar. In one letter, I write – “I truly love the woods, hills and streams of my home here in the Missouri Ozarks. Knowing that you grew up nearby gives me the feeling that I came back home.” (I had grown up in the desert of El Paso Texas, where my grandmother spent most of her own life and where she eventually passed away.) I also shared a lot with her about our efforts to promote and grow our fledgling business.

When I found this thick packet, I wondered why my mom sent it to me and didn’t simply throw it away. I don’t know if she bothered to read all of these letters or not – I can’t ask her since she died in Sept of 2015 – but I’m glad to have them today. Only a few of them can I even bear to throw away but the details of our early business are as precious as gold and I hope we can preserve them in protective sleeves in a binder. Maybe someday, our sons will enjoy reading about our adventures before we decided to become their parents.