Friday, October 04, 2013

My Nazi grandfather, Amon Goeth, would have shot me

Grandaughter of Goeth...Jennifer Teege

 Amon Goeth at the height of his career
Jennifer Teege was shocked to discover her grandfather was a Nazi concentration camp commandant. Her mother never told her, and as a child she never knew her father - a Nigerian student with whom her mother had a brief affair. This is her story.

Five years ago in northern Germany, in Hamburg, I was in the central library and I came across a book. It was wrapped in a red cover and for some reason I was immediately drawn to it.  The title, translated into English, was " I Have to Love My Father, Right?" and it had a small picture of a woman on the front who looked faintly familiar.

So I took the book and quickly went through it. There were a lot of photos and as I looked at the book I felt something was wrong. At the end, the author summed up some details about the woman on the cover and her family, and I realized they were a perfect match with what I knew about my own biological family. So at that point I understood that this was a book about my family history.
Amon Goeth and Monika Hertwig
Teege's grandfather Amon Goeth (after his arrest as a war criminal) and her mother Monika Hertwig

The woman in the picture was my mother, and her father was Amon Goeth, the commandant of Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow. My mother had told me nothing, but I did not grow up with my mother - she gave me up as a very small child
Concentration camp at Plaszow
Taken at Plaszow

A few weeks after I was born I was put in a children's home where I sometimes saw my mother. Then I grew up in a foster family that adopted me when I was seven years old. So I saw my mother until the age of seven but after that we had no contact - except for once.

This was when I was in my 20s and she probably did not tell me anything at this point because she wanted to protect me - she thought it would be better if I did not know about my real past, about the truth, about my family, about my grandfather.
Goeth , holding the dreaded rifle, on the balcony of his villa at Plaszow, from where he randomly shot prisoners when the mood struck him
Amon Goeth in uniform, riding a horse 
Amon Goeth at Plaszow
 Goeth at his trial in Poland

 Smug looking Goeth at his trial

 Shot of Plaszow Camp

Goeth patrolling camp

I was completely shocked when I found out - it was like the carpet was ripped from under my feet.
I couldn't do anything. I went home, I took the book with me, and at home I read it cover to cover. There were details about my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather, Amon Goeth.

I slowly started to understand the impact of what I had read. Growing up as an adopted child I did not know anything about my past, or only very very little. Then to be confronted with information like this was so overwhelming. It was weeks, a month, until I really started to recover.

I had seen the film Schindler's List, in which Ralph Fiennes plays my grandfather. I knew he was playing a man called Goeth but I had not made the connection - it never occurred to me that we were related.

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth
Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List

I think if I had known all of this when I was younger, it would have been easier because I would have had a chance to integrate it into my life. Getting the information so spontaneously, so out of the blue, it was almost impossible to make it fit in with my understanding of who I am.
It was very distressing to know that Amon Goeth and I are genetically linked. I feel part of it, but still there is a distance - which is a difference between me and my mother, because she grew up with her own mother (with my grandmother) and for her it was difficult to leave the past behind.

I have tried not to leave the past behind but put it in a place where it belongs, which means not to ignore it, but not to let it overshadow my life. I am not a reflection of this part of my family story but I am still very connected to it. I try to find a way to integrate it into my life.

It is a story that is very unique and very unusual, and a story that has a deeper meaning. It is more about the universal question of how to deal with the weight of the past on the present - and it should show that it is possible to gain personal freedom from the past.

Amon Leopold Goeth 1908-1946

Arrested and taken to Krakow for trial
  • Born in Vienna
  • Commandant at the Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow from 1943 to 1944
  • Tried before the Polish Supreme Court and sentenced to death for the mass murder of Jews
  • Hanged in Krakow in 1946
  • Character played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler's List

Monika stands in front of the , at one time,  luxury villa belonging to her father.
INHERITANCE is the story of Monika Hertwig, a soft-spoken woman struggling with a profound legacy left by a father she never really knew. Monika's father was Amon Goeth. Often described as a "monster," and "inhuman," Goeth was a prominent Nazi leader and commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp. He murdered thousands of Jews and other prisoners during the war.
 When Schindler's List opened in 1993, Monika found Ralph Fiennes' chilling portrayal of her father so disturbing that she left the theater. The fact that this man was her father is something that Monika still cannot reconcile.
 Feeling an aching need to come to terms with this legacy of hatred, Monika reached out to Helen Jonas, who lived enslaved under Goeth's roof serving as both his maid and prey (repeatedly brutalized) for nearly two years. Sixty years after Amon Goeth's execution, Monika and Helen met for the first time at what was once Goeth's luxurious villa overlooking the concentration camp. They stand beneath the balcony, from where he picked out prisoners for target practice and enjoyed watching camp dogs tear prisoners to pieces. It was a brutally honest, and emotional journey for both women.


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