The first thing to know about Jennifer Teege and journalist Nikola Sellmair’s My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past is this: The main title, compelling as it is, doesn’t accurately reflect this book. Not because infamous Nazi commandant and war criminal Amon Goeth, whom Jennifer Teege discovers in mid-life is her grandfather, wouldn’t have shot a black person like her — he almost certainly would have. It’s just that the title is the only remotely sensational thing about this memoir – a discomfiting but clear-eyed journey of self-discovery and identity reconciliation that first-time author Teege relates with admirable straightforwardness and equanimity, and nary a shred of sensationalism. Given the inherent horror of any Holocaust story and the sheer number of them published, it’s quite a feat.
The journey begins in 2008, when Teege stumbles across a biography of her biological mother. Monika Hertwig, born Monika Goeth, is described as the daughter of a mass murderer named Amon Goeth who oversaw the Plaszow concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. Teege is black – her birth father is Nigerian – and though she was adopted by a German family at age 7 and lost touch with her first family, her memories of them are vivid, if incomplete. Skimming the book, she recognizes another name and face: her grandmother Ruth Irene Goeth, the biological relative she loved most as a child. Monika is the product of Ruth Irene’s longtime love affair with Amon Goeth, a man Teege never knew anything about — until now. Like most adoptees, she’s always had plenty of questions about her birth family; she just didn’t expect to get these answers.
One of the notable things about this book is how the narrative continues to surprise. Teege, who works in advertising, comes off as serious-minded, a planner and a doer who doesn’t like to leave anything to chance.Yet each revelation about Amon Goeth reverberates throughout the family chain and forces her to reevaluate what she thinks she knows, and feels, about her German relatives. One by one, the dots keep connecting, and to her credit, Teege never averts her gaze. She wrestles openly with big questions that really have no answers, chiefly how her grandmother or anyone could have embraced someone as monstrous as Amon. And if Teege loves Ruth Irene, which she does, what does that say about her? What are the limits of forgiveness?
For all the gruesome history covered in this book about Amon Goeth – he was memorably played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List—the overall story is subtler than that. Armed with her new knowledge, Teege must reassess not just the relationships in her family but also her own relationship to the darkest chapter in German history, something that had previously been an abstraction. In all of this, Teege suffers a kind of loss – of innocence, of the memory of her beloved grandmother – which compounds the devastation of visiting the sites of death camps in Poland and Germany that Amon Goeth oversaw. Those scenes are rendered even more surreal because it seems so improbable that Teege, a black woman, would have any connection to the seat of Nazi power. Yet she does.
The question of race is a missed opportunity here, another reason that the title is somewhat misleading. Though she talks a lot about feeling abandoned as a child, Teege mentions blackness rarely – there’s a brief, unemotional meeting with her Nigerian father, and a walking tour through the African immigrant section of Paris in which she admits to feeling comfortable in her own skin in a way she never had in her native Germany. Those moments notwithstanding, this book is almost entirely about a 38-year-old adopted German woman a few generations removed from the Holocaust who, in unravelling the long-standing mystery of her biological family, finally grasps the enormity of the Holocaust in personal terms. That’s a worthy and compelling story. But when all was said and written, I found myself wishing that Teege (along with journalist Nikola Sellmair, who weaves in research and acts as a kind of Greek chorus to Teege’s narrative) could have shaded that story with more emotional and historical specifics about race and its role in the Holocaust, and in Germany today. That Teege turns out to be the descendant of one of the most brutally racist death camp commandants of the Third Reich is a fantastic and unsettling irony that’s set forth but never really explored.
I was first annoyed by the dual, sometimes dueling narratives of Teege and Sellmair; it felt like Teege’s account was being fact-checked or instantly reinterpreted on the page, and it intruded on the sense of singular perspective so crucial to memoir. But as the book goes on, Sellmair becomes an indispensable counterpoint, filling in important historical context and clarifying Teege as a character via interviews with friends and family. We realize that Teege herself is not quite a reliable narrator, which, far from being a problem, is part of her appeal. She is determined and rational, but also weighed down by depression, confused and withdrawn. Sometimes she glosses over things or contradicts herself. By the end of the book her discovery is complete but haunts her, and likely always will. “What is family?” she wonders. “Is it something we inherit, or something we build?” It is both, of course. And very often something completely out of our hands.