Jennifer Teege says she will never forget meeting Ari Nornberg, a Holocaust survivor. While promoting her book in Tel Aviv this year, she spotted him sitting “two meters in front of me” in the packed room.
He watched German-born Teege, who speaks fluent Hebrew, tell her story. He sat quietly in the audience as she told attendees that her grandfather was Amon Goeth; the notorious Nazi concentration camp commander known as the “butcher of Plaszow”.
The journey that led her to discover her family’s roots are told in her book, strikingly titled My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me; a Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past.
At the end of the session, she met 80-year-old Nornberg. “His father was the personal shoemaker of my grandfather,” she recalls. “I do not know how he must have felt meeting me. We had a conversation later on and he said my grandfather was his ‘worst nightmare’.
“It was heartbreaking. He hugged me at the end -– his family said he never hugs anyone. He said getting to know me was his eightieth birthday present; he felt closeness.”
I'm not obsessed with him but just fascinated by his mind
She believes that her appearance, “the protection of my skin”, made it easier for Nornberg “to connect with me. I speak the language and can connect with the people in Israel. It makes me so happy to have my book published there.
“It brings out a feeling of happiness and a feeling of closure. There are survivors who are out there who can also speak German and connect with me.”
Countless stories, biographies and psychological profiles have been written about the Nazi elite. Perhaps they represent attempts in understanding the men who were driven by ideology or ambition, or both, to carry out Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. But few figures are as sinister as Goeth, whose notoriety stems from the sadistic enjoyment he took in torturing his Jewish victims.
A gun enthusiast, he sporadically shot babies and spent mornings using camp inmates as target practice. A classical music aficionado, he played the waltz in the camp to drown out the cries of parents as their children were taken to Auschwitz. An animal lover, he trained his dogs Ralf and Rolf to tear apart victims as he calmly watched, waiting for bodies to stop moving before administering the final bullets. Goeth was hanged for his crimes in Poland in 1946.
When Holocaust survivor Mila Pfefferberg met Ralph Fiennes – the British actor who won a Bafta award for his portrayal of Goeth in Schindler’s List – she shook with fear on the film set, so close was the likeness. Teege, 44, remembers watching Steven Speilberg’s Oscar-winning film from her rented apartment in Tel Aviv, where she read Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. Teege, who first visited Israel with a Jewish friend before deciding to study there, recalls Fiennes’s chilling portrayal of the man responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Jews.
“I knew of his character, I had seen him in Schindler’s List,” she says in a German accent. “In the movie, he is the symbol of evil.”
Years later Teege, who is half black, discovered that Goeth was her grandfather.
“When I found out, it was difficult to distinguish ‘Amon Goeth’ in the movie from my grandfather, the real Amon Goeth,” says Teege.
Her grandmother Ruth – the secretary of Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust – fell in love with Goeth, a married man whom she described as intelligent, charming and someone who reminded her of Clark Gable. She moved into Goeth’s home near the Plaszow camp and was handed two female camp inmates as maids after she fell pregnant with Teege’s mother, Monika.
Monika Goeth went on to conceive Teege with a Nigerian man, before putting her in an orphanage when she was four weeks old.
As an adult battling with depression, Teege came across a book about Goeth in a library. Flicking through, she spotted her mother’s name – leading her on a journey to discover her family’s history.
She says: “I would never say I was obsessed with him, but I was interested in the psychology of him.
“He was a psychopath or a sociopath.
“He set dogs to rip people apart, which is not something I could ever imagine. He was a perpetrator, an executor, a very dangerous man. His personality fitted in with that social system; he never feared that anyone would punish him for what he did.
“But this book is not just about my grandfather; this is also about the psychology of people like my mother and grandmother, of Germans who stood by [during the Holocaust]. They were also guilty.
“It took me a long time to reconnect with my mother,” she continues. “My first feeling when I found out about my grandfather, was a feeling of anger. I asked my mother a lot of questions. I asked her why she never told me about him. She explained that she did not want it to affect me. I think it was the wrong decision, but there is nothing to forgive as it was her intention to protect me; it made sense to her.
“As her father, he played such a huge role in her life because your parents are an important part of your identity. When you think about your identity, you think about your parents.”
Teege, a mother of two, says she has come to accept her lineage, though, she adds, “when I talk about him I use his name ‘Amon Goeth’ rather than ‘my grandfather’.”
Her decision to publicise her story rests, she says, with the different lessons that can be taken from it.
She explains: “The decision to write this book was not made in one day. It was a process. I started to write things down so I didn’t forget what I had found out about my family and it turned into this. But this is not about me; this is my family chronicle. I believe it is a story worth sharing with the public.
“I know, from people who have read my book, that it speaks to them on different levels. It is about life after the war in Germany, it is about Germans who might not have been perpetrators like my grandfather, but who were all responsible.”
Now, Teege believes that “dangerous ideology of the past” has resurfaced. She says: “In Great Britain, in your own country, people are starting to follow Isis. Sometimes people follow these groups because they are desperate, they do not have jobs, they do not have a future and they want to let out their anger – other times it is about ideology.
“Some people do not understand the lessons of the past.”
Teege, who was baptised as a baby, describes herself as “a believer. “Religion very often divides people. Fundamentalism divides people.”