Stumbling Over a Violent Past

When Jennifer Teege was 38, she discovered a book in Hamburg’s central library that dramatically transformed her self-conception and her life: I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? The book concerned ...

When Jennifer Teege was 38, she discovered a book in Hamburg’s central library that dramatically transformed her self-conception and her life: I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? The book concerned the daughter of a prominent, infamous Nazi. That woman, Teege realized with shock, was her own mother, Monika. In that moment, Teege went from being just another German woman to being the granddaughter of a war criminal. And not just any war criminal, but Amon Goeth, the brutal Plaszów camp commandant depicted by Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List.

What does one do with such a shocking legacy? The answer—along with further surprises—can be found in Teege’s 2013 memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, co-written with journalist Nikola Sellmair. A sensation in Germany, lucidly translated into English last year and now available in paperback, it intercuts moving autobiographical chapters with historical and contextual passages by Sellmair. Teege reveals her psychological crisis, assesses her relationships with her grandmother and mother, and recounts the years she spent studying and forging friendships in Israel, long before she knew of her direct link to the Holocaust. Her memoir has much to teach us about the ordinary, intimate conditions in which political violence—and the reckoning that follows—takes place.

There is, of course, no shortage of literature on the Nazi period, but Teege’s story has an additional twist: not only is she the granddaughter of a racist mass murderer, she is also a black German woman, the daughter of a white German mother and a Nigerian father. As a result, while the memoir confronts historical conundrums about race, reconciliation, and responsibility for the past, it also necessarily offers glimpses of very contemporary questions about the contours of German identity—questions that have been forcefully put back on the agenda by the large-scale migration of refugees from the Middle East and South Asia to Germany in recent months.

Teege’s complicated identity gives her something like what the great African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness”—the valuable ability (and the burden) to see through both minority and majority lenses. Obviously, Teege’s skin color is irrelevant to questions of responsibility; it neither strengthens nor mitigates her connection to the Nazi past. Yet, it inevitably positions her differently in relation to that history. The very title of her memoir—My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me—reveals her quandary as the racially marked descendant of a racist murderer. Although very much a story about the Holocaust, the memoir also speaks to contemporary societies—including Germany and the United States—beset with racist legacies.

Readers will want to know how Teege’s unbelievable story is even possible. As she recounts, she was given up to an orphanage when just a few weeks old, and adopted a few years later by a welcoming family in Munich. Her biological mother Monika had been born just after the war to Amon Goeth’s lover Ruth Irene Kalder. A year later, Goeth was executed. Despite his infamy, Ruth petitioned authorities to allow her to take his name. She remained true to his memory for decades, but in 1983, after completing an interview for a film about Oskar Schindler, she committed suicide. Although Teege grew up with her adoptive family, she saw Monika and Ruth occasionally and was particularly close to her grandmother. However, neither ever revealed who her grandfather was.

despite ongoing discrimination, minorities are not “outside” the national legacy at all

Teege’s late discovery of her family link to Nazism makes her unique, but her experiences resonate broadly. Germans have been compelled to ask questions about responsibility for the crimes of Nazism—questions they have not always been eager to answer. Were Hitler and a small group of fanatics solely to blame for political persecution, an aggressive war, and genocide? Or were the German people as a whole guilty for actively or passively facilitating these crimes? While respectable opinion can no longer hide behind the fiction of a few perpetrators who betrayed the trust of an innocent, unknowing populace, the problem of how to think about responsibility remains unresolved.

Immediately after the war, the philosopher Karl Jaspers spoke directly to his countrymen on responsibility in a series of lectures, published in 1946 as The Question of German Guilt (Die Schuldfrage). Jaspers argued that only individuals can be held responsible for criminal deeds. However, he described three forms of responsibility that might apply to the populace at large: political guilt (based on membership in a polity), moral guilt (the following of unjust, if legal, orders), and metaphysical guilt (the responsibility that everyone bears for everyone else). Jaspers’s dissection helped set the stage for West Germany’s later embrace of responsibility for the Holocaust and remains useful when approaching collective responsibility for state-sponsored violence—which, indeed, is generally impossible without large-scale active and passive complicity. Such complicity cannot be tried in a court, but confronting it through individual and collective acts of remorse and reparation are essential to restorative justice.

Works of culture, including Teege’s memoir, also play an important role in the aftermath of collective violence, helping us assess the fine-grained, contradictory forms complicity can take. Jaspers’s categories do not quite capture the case of someone like Teege’s grandmother. Ruth was no perpetrator—she even occasionally intervened on behalf of Goeth’s Jewish prisoners—but she lived in a commandant’s villa at the edge of a concentration camp, and clearly enjoyed the luxuries that came with proximity to power. In 1975 she told the Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev, “It was a wonderful time. My Amon was king. I was his queen. Who wouldn’t have relished that?” In Ruth we see someone who could have known better—and perhaps even did—yet who chose to disavow her intimate moral implication in mass murder and instead inhabit a romantic fantasy world. Teege’s portrait of Ruth allows us some empathy with her need for self-delusion, but also makes it impossible not to judge her harshly.

A Stolperstein memorial stone in Berlin. Photograph by Axel Mauruszat / Wikimedia

A Stolperstein memorial stone in Berlin. Photograph by Axel Mauruszat / Wikimedia

Teege’s memoir also allows us to reflect on how the dilemmas of responsibility have grown more complex with time. For how long must Germany remain under the shadow of the Third Reich? How must later generations—born after the event—answer for the crimes of their country, of their ancestors? Nobody would say that they bear guilt, but many claim that they inherit a responsibility to confront history. This inherited burden is central to the story in which Teege suddenly finds herself caught up. Indeed, Inheritance is the name of a 2006 documentary film that stages a dialogue between Teege’s mother Monika Goeth and Helen Jonas (formerly Rosenzweig), a Jewish inmate forced to serve Amon Goeth in his Plaszów villa. As Inheritance powerfully illustrates in scenes filmed at that same villa, Monika is wracked with conflicting feelings about the father she never knew—whose evil she dares to confront and yet cannot help trying to downplay. Whether we think she “deserves” it or not, Monika appears as a rather haggard woman, indelibly marked by a history in which she could not possibly have participated.

What of Monika’s daughter Jennifer, a woman who never had contact with her grandfather? Does Teege bear responsibility for the past? Are biological ties even relevant? After all, it was pseudo-scientific racial biology that buttressed Nazi ideology in the first place. Ascribing a special responsibility to the progeny of Nazis risks simply repeating Nazi-like ways of thinking. And yet, refusing any kind of familial relevance does not quite satisfy either. The question of inherited responsibility for the Holocaust—vexing for all non-Jewish Germans—is even more troublesome for the descendants of prominent perpetrators. In fact, numerous memoirs address these ties that bind, including books by the niece of Heinrich Himmler, the daughter of Albert Speer, and the son of Hans Frank.

the dilemmas of responsibility have grown more complex with time

Teege’s memoir takes part in this now-familiar genre, but her 1970 adoption, the delayed revelation of her family history, and her membership in Germany’s relatively small black minority set her reflections apart. Teege’s adoption, for instance, allows her to speak as someone with an extraordinary family history, but a very ordinary family. Naturally, her adoptive family, the Siebers, are less confounded by Germany’s Nazi past than are the Goeths. But their story provides insight into the acute psychic inheritance, usually hidden in the shadowy private sphere, that crosses generations in the most ordinary German families. For example, Teege describes her adoptive father: “He was a liberal … [he] played an active part in the peace movement. On the subject of the Holocaust, however, he could not let go of the question of whether the number of murdered Jews was really accurate, or if it hadn’t been less.” Even on his deathbed, his obsession continued: “I don’t think he could quite put his finger on what exactly was bothering him. He hid behind quotations and theories. But ultimately, it boiled down to his parents … They weren’t party members, but were sympathizers and followers. They liked the discipline and the Hitler Youth, and they believed in the secure future that Hitler promised.”

Teege’s descriptions of her adoptive family illustrate a key insight made by Harald Welzer and his colleagues in their influential study, “Grandpa Was Not a Nazi.” Weltzer found that many Germans struggle to integrate their extensive historical knowledge of National Socialism with their affection for beloved family members. Unlike other third-generation post-Holocaust Germans, who cannot bridge this public/private divide, Teege fearlessly probes her two families’ troubled relations to the past. In one sense, her story confirms Welzer’s study: Although discovering her grandfather’s identity precipitated a nervous breakdown, it ultimately proves easier for Teege to acknowledge the crimes of a grandfather she did not know than to forgive a grandmother she loved. Yet, in confronting her feelings toward her grandmother, Teege shows how emotional investment can fuel—rather than stifle—a meaningful confrontation with the past.

Then there is the other surprising aspect of Teege’s story: the fact that she is a black German woman. Race is not the centerpiece of Teege’s book, but she does not ignore its relevance. Early on, she considers what it meant to grow up black in postwar West Germany: “When I looked in the mirror as a child, it was obvious I was different: My skin was dark, my hair frizzy … Back then, in the seventies, I was the only black child in Waldtrudering, the tranquil leafy neighborhood in Munich where I lived with my adoptive family. At school we sometimes sang the nursery rhyme ‘Zehn Kleine Negerlein’ (‘Ten Little Negroes’)—and I hoped that nobody would turn around and look at me.” More anecdotes flesh out this subtheme: Other children sometimes called her “Negerbub”—black boy—mistaking her gender because of her height and short hair, and she felt conspicuous at birthday parties where Mallomars were served, as these were called “Negro’s Kisses” at the time.

emotional investment can fuel—rather than stifle—a meaningful confrontation with the past

There is a great distance between such everyday racism and the genocidal anti-Semitism in which Amon Goeth participated—Teege never claims otherwise. But as the black granddaughter of a Nazi, Teege reveals how racialized conceptions of identity persist across the Nazi/post-Nazi divide—a phenomenon usually overlooked by white Germans confronting the Nazi period. Such continuities shape the lives not only of black Germans, but also of today’s refugees and the immigrants and postmigrants who, despite decades in the country, continue to fit uneasily at best into Germany’s national identity and reckoning with the past. Teege’s story also suggests, however, that despite ongoing discrimination, minorities are not “outside” the national legacy at all. Whether or not they have a biological link to the past, they occupy a terrain indelibly shaped by a genocide that demands accounting. At any point, like Teege, they might stumble over a connection to the past that reshapes the way they inhabit the present.

One of the most successful artistic efforts to confront the legacy of genocide plays directly on the notion of stumbling over history. Gunter Demnig’s Stolperstein (Stumbling Block) project involves placing small, inscribed markers in the sidewalk outside buildings where Jews, Sinti and Roma, and other victims of the Nazis lived. Each Stolperstein carries the phrase “Hier wohnte …” [Here lived …] followed by the victim’s name and date of birth along with the bare facts of deportation and murder. Where a whole family was deported, one finds a small constellation of stones. The brilliance of Demnig’s simple memorials, now in eighteen European countries, lies in their unspoken messages: about the everydayness of the genocide, the proximity of the victims to the population at large, and the fact that the living now occupy the places of the dead.

In a famous essay from the late 1950s, the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor W. Adorno asked, “What does working through the past mean?” Adorno’s insight—that violent pasts do not simply fade, but require political intervention and social transformation—has sparked decades of reflection and inspired practical action, from projects like Demnig’s to South Africa’s experiments with transitional justice. Here in the United States, we have not—as a society—reflected on the past as Adorno demanded, nor developed projects like Demnig’s to confront our poisoned legacies of slavery and genocide. The results of this failure—and the need for a substantive historical reckoning—are evident everywhere around us.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, which combines Teege’s personal story with the more distanced perspective of her co-author Sellmair, offers an accessible entrée into the problems of historical responsibility. A bestseller in Germany despite joining a crowded field of books on the Nazi legacy, it also resonates here in the United States by showing us that we are always positioned by history. Whether or not our ancestors participated in the ethnic cleansing of North America or owned slaves is beside the point. We are all heirs to the world created by that ethnic cleansing, by slavery; our identities are shaped by it, albeit in radically asymmetrical ways. At the same time, our lack of control over the past does not free us from the tasks at hand. As Teege’s story shows, our experiences of prejudice do not mean we cannot be implicated in unsavory histories, or that future generations will absolve us for contemporary wars of conquest. Dark legacies are there to be discovered: we stumble on them every time we open a book, every time we walk in the streets. icon

Featured image: Amon Göeth's Mug Shot, Wikimedia