A Black Woman Discovers Her Family Tree’s Secret Nazi Roots
Jennifer Teege was placed in foster care at age 3 and adopted at 7, but she maintained contact with her biological mother and grandmother throughout her childhood. When Teege was 38, however, she discovered that her biological mother was the child of Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of Płaszów concentration camp—the sadistic SS man portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List; Teege’s grandmother had been Goeth’s mistress during the war. In her memoir My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, co-written with journalist Nikola Sellmair and newly translated from German, Teege recounts how this discovery shook her life to the core. In this excerpt, Teege visits the house where Goeth lived while he ran Płaszów.
Carefully I place one foot in front of the other. The floor beneath me sways; the rotten wood creaks and yields under the pressure of each step. It is cold and damp in here; the air smells musty. It’s such a squalid place. What’s that over there? Is that rat droppings? There is no proper light in here; not enough light, and not enough air either. Carefully I continue walking through my grandfather’s house, crossing the dark fishbone parquet into the former trophy room. Amon Goeth once had a sign put up here that said he who shoots first lives longer.
I had wanted to see the house where my grandparents lived. A Polish tour guide whose address I found on the Internet told me that it still stood. A pensioner lives there now, and every now and then he shows individual visitors around. The tour guide called the man and arranged for me to see the house.
In the Płaszów neighborhood of Krakow, the only dilapidated house on quiet Heltmana Street stands out like a sore thumb against the other neat and tidy single-family homes. Some of its windowpanes are broken; the curtains are dirty; the house looks unlived-in. A large sign on the front of the house says sprzedam. For sale.
The front door still looks beautiful; the wood is decorated with ornaments, and the dark red paint has faded only a little. An unkempt man opens the door and leads me up a narrow stairway into the house. My tour guide Malgorzata Kieres—she’s asked me to call her by her first name—translates his Polish for me. I haven’t told Malgorzata why I am interested in the house; she thinks I am a tourist with a general interest in history.
I look around. The plaster is coming off the walls. There is hardly any furniture. But there is a coldness that creeps into your bones. And a stench. The ceilings are underpinned with wooden beams. I hope the house won’t collapse on top of me and bury me beneath it.
Crumbling walls, holding up the past.
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 Rabbit, A 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.
The history teachers at my high school showed us documentaries about the liberation of the concentration camps, and we saw people who had been reduced to mere skeletons. I read book after book, looking for answers, to find out what drove the perpetrators to act the way they did, but in the end I gave up: Yes, I found some explanations, but I would never understand it completely. Finally, finished with the subject, I concluded that I would have behaved differently. I was different; today’s Germans were different.
When I first arrived in Israel in my early twenties, I picked up books about Nazism again. Yet even there, where I was meeting the victims and their children and grandchildren on a daily basis, more important issues soon took over. I had read so much and asked so many people about it—I felt like I knew everything there was to know about the Holocaust. I was much more interested in the here and now: the Palestinian conflict, the threat of war.
I had thought I knew it all, but now, at nearly 40, I have to start all over.
One of the first books I pick up is a classic from 1967, The Inability to Mourn by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich. I like their approach; they look deep inside each person and try to understand without judgment. In their role as psychoanalysts, they regularly dealt with patients who were active members of the SS or other Nazi organizations before 1945. These people did not appear to have any sense of remorse or shame; they and their fellow Germans continued to live their lives as if the Third Reich had never existed. Reading the book with the knowledge of my family history, I think of my grandmother, who denied Amon Goeth’s actions until the end.
The conclusion the Mitscherlichs drew at the end of the 1960s was that the Germans had denied their past and suppressed their guilt; ideally, the whole nation should have been in therapy. That conclusion no longer applies to today’s Germans.
I also read books by other Nazi descendants, for example by Richard von Schirach, son of Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach, and by Katrin Himmler, great-niece of Heinrich Himmler, reich leader of the SS. Their family histories are of great interest to me, and I look for similarities.
I begin to dig deeper, I question family and friends. My adoptive mother’s stepfather in Vienna, for example, served in Africa under Erwin Rommel. On long mountain walks he would tell us children anecdotes from that time, thrilling adventure stories of valiant warriors fighting in the desert, stories of how they collected the early morning dew from the tent sheets for drinking water, or how they once had to dig their car out of the sand dunes. At first we thought that our “Opa Vienna,” as we used to call him, was Rommel’s personal driver, but he put us right: He was only one of the drivers in the German Africa Corps. One day “the Limey got him,” and he would tell us stories in his Viennese dialect about his time as a prisoner of war.
He only told us one horror story from the war: A soldier had been murdered—beheaded—and afterward his decapitated body was still running around like a headless chicken. That story always gave us the creeps.
When it came to talking about his superior, Opa only had words of praise. Rommel, the sly Desert Fox, was a “decent” Nazi? An urban legend. What skeletons are my adoptive family hiding in the closet?
Memories of discussions with my adoptive father are coming back to me. He was a liberal, often volunteered his services to friends and neighbors, and 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. He and his friends would argue fiercely about it. My adoptive brothers and I found the discussion unnecessary and didn’t understand why this issue was so important to our father.
Suddenly I am not so sure anymore: Am I really so different? Have we really left everything behind us? What does it mean for me, for our time, that my grandfather was a war criminal?
My perception of time is changing. Events that happened a very long time ago are suddenly feeling very recent again. In the last few months I have read so much, have watched so many films; everything seems so immediate. Maybe it’s because, to me, this old story is now very new, very fresh. Often, when I delve into this world my grandfather inhabited, it feels as if these crimes happened only yesterday.
And now I am standing here in this dilapidated villa in Krakow. I am not quite sure what I’m doing here, in this house, in this city. Does being here make any sense at all? I just know that I had needed to come to Krakow now. Shortly before I came I was in the hospital—I’d had a miscarriage.
I am feeling sad and exhausted. My therapist advised me not to travel to Krakow in my condition, but I had really wanted to make this trip. First I flew to Warsaw and then I took the train on to Krakow, the city where my grandfather was infamous, where it rained ashes at the end of the war when he had the remains of thousands of people cremated.
I want to see where my grandfather committed his murders. I want to get close to him—and then put some distance between him and me.
On the ground floor, the old man is now showing me the living room. This is where the parties were held, he says with a sweep of his arm. Here they sat, my grandfather and the other Nazis, drinking schnapps and wine. Oskar Schindler was there, too. The old man leads me onto the patio. He explains that my grandfather had some building work done, had balconies and patios added. The view of the countryside was important to him, he says.
The house must have been beautiful once; I like the style. Did my grandfather redesign the building himself? Was he interested in architecture like me? Why am I even thinking about whether we share the same tastes? Amon Goeth is not the kind of grandfather you want to find similarities with. The crimes he committed override everything else. In the book about my mother, I read that my grandmother used to gush about Amon Goeth’s table manners, even long after the war was over. He was a real gentleman, she said.
Upstairs, the old man unlocks the door to the former bedroom. There are hooks in the ceiling. This is where Amon Goeth did his exercises, the old man claims. Or maybe, he adds with a wink, he had a love-swing hanging from there.
I step onto the balcony and look out over the hills covered in brushwood. A cold wind blows in my face. It is a rainy October day. The camp, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by watchtowers, was located near the house. My grandfather could keep an eye on his prisoners; in the mornings it was only a short walk to work. That blurred photograph of Amon Goeth on the cover of the book about my mother—his open mouth, the bare chest, the rifle in his hand, wearing only shorts on his balcony—who took that photo? Was it my grandmother? Amon Goeth is said to have been proud of his firearms; he liked to carry them around with him. Did that impress my grandmother, or did it frighten her? What did she know? What did she suppress? I cannot imagine her living in this house, yet not being aware of what was happening in the camp. Amon Goeth is said to have beaten his maids. My grandmother must have seen or at least heard that, too. The house isn’t that big.
After my arrival in Krakow the previous night, on my way to the hotel, I drove past Wawel Castle, the former residence of the kings of Poland, high above the Vistula. The castle was brightly lit. After the German invasion, Hans Frank, Hitler’s governor of Poland, made himself at home there, living a life of luxury surrounded by servants, employing composers and chess players. I can imagine the life he had up there, how powerful he must have felt residing in that grand castle with its view over Krakow.
By comparison Amon Goeth’s house looks very normal, almost modest. I had imagined it to be bigger, more ostentatious. I find it difficult to imagine that glamorous receptions were held here and that its owner was a man who was master of life and death for thousands of people. A man who thrived on having absolute power, and who wielded and relished this power in the most cynical way absolutely.
The old man leads me into the basement. “This is where the commandant stored his wine,” he says. And then he points proudly to a rusty tub: “Amon Goeth’s authentic bathtub.”
Opposite the wine cellar and next to the kitchen was the maids’ room. So this was Helen’s place, here in the basement—Helen Rosenzweig, Amon Goeth’s former Jewish maid from the American documentary I watched on TV the day after I discovered the book.
My mother met Helen here in this house. Ultimately it was a very sad encounter: Helen was shocked because my mother had such a striking resemblance to Amon Goeth. And even though Helen and my mother both try very hard, they cannot form a relationship with each other; history stands between them. Helen sees Amon Goeth in my mother.
In the film, when my mother tries to find an explanation for Amon Goeth’s actions, Helen snaps angrily: “He was a monster. He was smiling and whistling when he came back from killing. He had the urge to kill, like an animal. It was obvious.”
My brother Matthias has given me the documentary on DVD so that I can watch it again and again. At first I focused only on my mother and didn’t pay much attention to Helen. The film begins with my mother writing a letter to Helen asking her for a meeting. In the letter she says that she imagines Helen might be afraid of meeting her—she herself is scared to meet Helen.
At the start, I wasn’t so concerned about the actual contents of the letter. All I could think was, why does my mother spend so much time writing a letter to Helen? Why doesn’t she write to me? Why does she share Helen’s pain but not that of her own child?
Then gradually my feelings faded into the background and suddenly I saw Helen. I saw her, after all those years, returning anxiously to this house that used to be her dreadful prison. I saw how she is still plagued by her memories. She recounts how Amon Goeth used to beat the maids, how he pushed them down these very stairs, how he screamed at them and called them slut, bitch, dirty Jewess.
Helen’s boyfriend was a member of the Jewish Resistance in the camp and was shot by Goeth. Helen also talks about the man she loved after the war, a camp survivor like herself. They were married for 35 years, moved to Florida and had children. Yet her husband could not get over the experience of the camp, and one day he took his own life. In his suicide note he wrote, “The memories haunt me every day. I just can’t go on.”
I am standing in the basement of my grandfather’s house, in the darkness of Helen’s room, where the only light comes from a small window. You can see a small patch of the garden. It was warm here; she didn’t have to sleep on straw in the drafty barracks and was certain to have had more to eat than the other detainees. She didn’t have to perform hard labor in the quarries like most of the other women in the camp; she wore a black dress with a white apron and served roast meat and wine. Yet she was living beneath the same roof as the man who could kill her at any time. She expected to die in this house.
They called Goeth the “Butcher of Płaszów.” I keep on asking myself how it was that he became that way. I don’t think that it was his childhood or even his hatred of the Jews. I think it was much more banal than that: In this world of men, killing was a contest, a kind of sport. It reached the point where killing a human being meant nothing more than swatting a fly. In the end the mind goes completely numb; death has entertainment value.
I have a terrible image in my head, which used to haunt me even in my sleep: It is said that Amon Goeth once caught a Jewish woman who was boiling potatoes in a large trough for the pigs—just as she, driven by hunger, ate one of the potatoes herself. He shot her in the head and ordered two men to throw the dying woman into the boiling water with the potatoes. One of them refused, so Goeth shot him, too. I don’t know if this story is true or not, but I cannot get the image of this half-dead woman thrashing around in the boiling water out of my head.
These stories of how Amon Goeth considered himself superior, how he played music to accompany executions, used scarves and hats as props for his killings, how he played the master in his pathetic little villa—it would be comical if it wasn’t so sad. He was a narcissist—but not just in the sense that he was in love with himself. He was a narcissist who felt on top of the world when he humiliated and degraded others.
I read that my grandmother used to idolize him: handsome Amon Goeth, the man of her dreams.
This is juxtaposed to the image of him that contemporary witnesses have painted: quick-tempered, cruel, irascible. His dogs. His exaggerated masculinity: commanding, dominating. Uniform, discipline, Fatherland.
My mother always saw the father in him, too, not just the concentration camp commandant. She is much closer to him than I am, even though she never met him. She was still a baby when he was hanged. Survivors of the camp have told her again and again how much she looks like him. How dreadful that must have been for her.
Do I look like him? My skin color is like a barrier between us. I imagine myself standing next to him. We are both tall: I am 6 foot, he was 6 foot 4—a giant in those days.
He in his black uniform with its death-heads, me the black grandchild. What would he have said to a dark-skinned granddaughter, who speaks Hebrew on top of that? I would have been a disgrace, a bastard who brought dishonor to the family. I am sure my grandfather would have shot me.
My grandmother was never bothered by my skin color. She always seemed delighted to see me when I came to visit. No matter how little I was at the time: Children can sense if someone likes them, and she liked me. I’ve always felt so close to her. Yet she also held Amon Goeth when he came back from his killings. How could she share her bed and her home with him? She said she loved him, but is that a good enough excuse? Is it good enough for me? Was there anything lovable about Amon Goeth—is that even a permissible question?
When I look in the mirror I see two faces, mine and his. And a third, my mother’s.
The three of us have the same determined chin, the same lines between the nose and the mouth.
Height, lines—those things are only external. But what about on the inside? How much of Amon Goeth do I have in me? How much of Amon Goeth does each of us have in us?
I think we all have a bit of him in us. To believe that I have more than others would be to think like a Nazi—to believe in the power of blood.