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.

My Unorthodox Life

This program is being discussed in my all things adoption group this morning. It is said that “The whole storyline was so upsetting. The adoptive family is awful.” And also this, “One of the characters is looking for his “birth person” and is scared to hurt his adoptive mom by calling her his birth mother. Adoptive mom says stuff like “I thought I’d be dead when you start looking” or “Can’t you ask your private investigator to ask questions to her rather than make contact?”. So much insecurity, jealousy and emotional blackmail.

One adoptee notes – My adoptive mom did the exact same thing . As if it’s about HER “trauma“ (which honestly is self inflicted).

And there is this about the show – The adoptive mom also got pregnant shortly after adopting, and begs him to not change his name, even though she falsified his birth certificate! She’s like “I want you to stay happy,” when he is obviously depressed, tormented, hasn’t dated anyone in years, etc. The biological son (his brother by adoption) is calling him an idiot for doing it because “we have the best parents in the world” and “you’re the one who started this problem.” Then hangs up the phone on him. They are doing all they can to sabotage any reunion. His poor birth mom. He doesn’t even pick up on the fact she wanted to keep him.

I haven’t see this one but last night we suffered through A Serious Man – written, produced, edited and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. All we could figure out by the end of the movie was that it was the Coen’s revenge on their Jewish upbringing. I kept thinking – if I was Jewish, it might make sense. There is no adoption thread in that movie.

In my mom’s group, there are more than the usual number of Jewish people. So, I have been exposed to some of their experience. The one that stands out large for me is the mom who had famously large breasts and then developed breast cancer. She had boy/girl twins the same age as my youngest son. Though she had a great attitude going into the experience, she died rather quickly. I was somewhat impressed by the way her Jewish community was there for the whole family throughout that ordeal.

My paternal grandmother died of a heart attack the day she was to be released from the hospital following breast cancer surgery. She was originally from Long Island NY and my understanding is that there are a lot of Jewish people there. I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew. I suspect I may have gotten that from her. Another mom in my mom’s group lives in the town on Long Island with the same name as the surname of my paternal grandmother – Hempstead. The family goes way back with historically significant sites in New London, Connecticut (a diary covering a period of 47 years from Sept 1711 to November 1758 by an ancestor, Joshua Hempstead, is still in print).

Without My Brother

When I first saw this image, I thought of my Aunt Daisy. I don’t think she knew about my dad until after her mother had died. Her older sister did. My cousin, who is the daughter of that older sister is how I came by pictures of my grandmother holding my dad and one of him when he was a toddler.

When my Aunt Daisy’s daughter discovered me thanks to 23 and Me, her first question was – is your dad still alive ? Sadly I had to tell her no. In fact my Aunt Daisy was living only 90 miles away from my dad in the very same state at the time he died. Such a pity. I see him in her photos.

I am told my paternal grandmother never really got over “losing” my dad to adoption. It certainly wasn’t her intention to give him up. His father was a married man, still un-naturalized as a citizen at the time my dad was conceived, having immigrated from Denmark. I would guess my grandmother never told him – IF she even was still in contact with him at the time. But without a doubt, she did know who his father was and it is thanks to her own effort to leave us breadcrumbs that I know who my dad’s father was. She quietly handled her pregnancy through the Salvation Army home for unwed mothers at Ocean Beach CA. It was such an appropriate birth. My dad, a Pisces, the son of a Danish fisherman, who himself was in love with fishing and the ocean. Their resemblance to one another makes it unmistakable and lately, my reconnecting with Danish relatives still living in Denmark due to our shared genes is the proof, that didn’t exist back in the day. She obtained employment with the Salvation Army and migrated with my dad in tow to El Paso Texas, where she was pressured to give him up for adoption at 8 months old.

My slightly increased risk of breast cancer probably comes from my paternal grandmother. The day she was due to be released from the hospital after surgery for breast cancer, she suffered a fatal heart attack. I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew which I suspect comes from my paternal side – if not my grandmother, then my Danish grandfather.

It still amazes me that after over 60 years totally clueless in the dark, I know so much about my family origins. Never would I have predicted that such a possibility would actually become real.

Glad I Was

The author with her parents (both adoptees) apologies for the poor quality

My mom wrote about being adopted to me in an email “glad I was” but it was half-hearted because she died never knowing why. The state of Tennessee had rejected her request for her own adoption file while breaking her heart by telling her that her original mother had died some years earlier. In beginning her quest, my mom had said, “As a mother, I would want to know what became of my child.”

It is exceedingly sad that she didn’t receive her file. Her mom’s photo, holding my mom for the last time, was in it. Had she read through it, she would have known how much her mother loved her, wanted her and fought to keep her. My mom had defined her adoption as “inappropriate” in her letters to Tennessee. She was stating her belief delicately because she couldn’t reconcile having been born in Virginia and yet adopted in Tennessee while still an infant. And my mom knew all about the scandals of Georgia Tann, who’s agency my mom was adopted from.

The truth is that in the kindest of terms, my grandmother was coerced and exploited to take her baby from her for a woman who was willing to travel from Nogales Arizona to Memphis Tennessee to fetch my mom and then return to Arizona by train with an upset baby.

That remark from my mom came as I informed her I had gotten my DNA tested at Ancestry because both of my parents were adopted I didn’t know anything about my genetic origins. I had previously participated in National Geographic’s Genographic study of my maternal line (it was a gift from my brother-in-law for my birthday). The results were vague and minimal, only telling me my maternal line came out of Africa, validating my assertion that I was an Albino African – no one, including myself, could prove otherwise. The truth is I am very European, mostly Danish, then Scottish with a healthy dose of English and Irish to top it off. My mom had a smidgeon of Mali, I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew and Neanderthal.

My mom surprised me by telling me that she had also done an Ancestry DNA and had attempted family trees but they were based on the adoptive families for my dad and her self. She admitted that she lost motivation – “it just wasn’t real to me” she said – and I understood. Someday I will create REAL family trees for both of my parents. It just hasn’t been a priority nor have I had the time so far.

I recently went through a long exchange with some woman I didn’t know who had included my parents in her own family tree. She was really dense and it was difficult to get through to her that the people she was saying my parents were related to – they weren’t related to. Finally, she got it and said she would correct it when she had time. I never went back to look.

Someone recently described being adopted as being forced to play a silly game of pretend. I understand. My parents had to pretend to be the natural born child of the people who adopted them. My dad’s perspective matched that. He believed once you are adopted the people who gave you birth are insignificant. Only the people who raised you mattered. The pity is – unknown to him – at the time of his death a half-sister was living 90 miles away from him in the same state of New Mexico and could have shared with him so much about his mother and the family that came of her.

Robbed Of Heritage

The symbolism in this painting calls to something very deep within me.  It is a painting by Barbara Taffet. In 1973, she reinvented herself as Maria Alquilar, a Latina artist whose fictive back story included a Sephardic Jewish father from Argentina. Drawing on her deep knowledge of world myths and spiritual traditions, filtered through her own personal mythology, she began creating idiosyncratic works inspired by the work of the California Sacramento-Davis area narrative expressionist, outsider and funk artists she admired and collected.

Adoption robs us of our actual cultural heritage.  All my life until very recently, I believed my dad was half-Mexican and my mom possibly half-African American.  They were both adoptees and for what little we knew about our familial roots, we could claim any story we wanted and not even our own selves knew whether it was true or not.

So along came inexpensive DNA testing.  Both my mom and I had ours done at Ancestry.  Later on, I had mine also tested at 23 and Me.  My mom has some Mali in her and so, I suspect slavery had something to do with that.  My dad’s dark complexion actually came by way of his Danish immigrant father.  I have learned there is some Ashkenazi Jew in me and suspect that comes via a family that lived for generations on Long Island New York.

Why does this painting call so deeply to my soul – there is that Jewish symbol and there is the Southwestern symbols as well.  There is a predator protecting it’s prey – my maternal grandmother was preyed upon by Georgia Tann, the famous baby thief of Memphis Tennessee.  And it is always about the bunnies in my household.  The angelic image at the top is more like a Jackrabbit which fits nicely with my New Mexican birth.

In many transracial adoptions, the very young child is not only cut off from their cultural heritage but loses contact with their native language.  It may be difficult to understand how disorienting that is but I get it.  It’s time to change the rules of the adoption game.

Crucial – An Accurate Medical History

Like many adoptees who search for their origins, my mom told me that she needed to know her medical history in order for a mysterious condition to be diagnosed.  She was rejected by the state of Tennessee when she tried but learned her mother was dead – which devastated her.  This spoke to me that there was more to her yearning than knowing what this condition was.  In fact, at some point, she said to me “As a mother, I would want to know what became of my child.”  The state could not determine if her father was alive or not and that was their excuse for denying her.  He was 20 years older than my grandmother, so my mom was pretty certain that he was also dead.  It turns out, she was correct, he had been dead for 30 years at the time of her inquiry.

She was eventually diagnosed as having Vestibular Migraines.  She said it was possible that it could be genetic.  She described it as a feeling that if you were leaning against a wall somehow the wall support is not there. Like whatever holds you upright disappears and that it is a balance problem that causes dizziness.  Fortunately, I do not seem to have inherited it though I occasionally experience what my Ophthalmologist has said are Ocular Migraines.

One problem adoptees face, if not even told they were adopted, is medical history information that isn’t actually theirs. We knew both of my parents were adopted but I only knew THEIR medical history, which was at least “something” but nothing about their parents, because they died knowing next of nothing about their own original parents.

Once I learned who all 4 of my original grandparents were and something about their causes of death (for most of them, at least) or related health issues (my paternal grandmother had some breast cancer removed but died of a heart failure), the importance of caring for my heart is clear (my mom died of a massive heart attack in her Jacuzzi tub – my dad’s heart appears to have simply stopped and he stopped breathing, no one knows which came first) .

My paternal grandmother’s breast cancer might be related to the smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew my DNA revealed and the mammogram technician told me it matters, even though small, and to keep getting scans.

It isn’t right for adoptees to have to make crucial decisions for themselves affected by a lack of factual information.