friendship

'Killing was a contest, and my grandfather would have shot me.'

Raised by foster parents, Jennifer Teege, a black woman living in the Germany, grew up with no knowledge of her family’s secret. In her powerful story of discovery, she learns by chance the truth about her family’s secret Nazi past.

They called Goeth the “Butcher of P?aszów.” 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.

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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 six foot, he was six foot four—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 loveable about Amon Goeth – is that even a permissible question?

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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.

The quiet in the villa is suddenly broken: Malgorzata, the Polish woman who interprets the old man’s Polish for me, reveals out of the blue that she once met Amon Goeth’s daughter Monika. I ask her to tell me more and she says that my mother once came to visit the villa with a group of Polish schoolchildren. They were accompanied by a descendant of another Nazi, Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, Governor-General of Hitler’s occupied Poland.

Since Malgorzata doesn’t know who I am I ask her what she thought of my mother. “I thought she was a bit strange, and sad,” she replies. “Niklas Frank and Monika Goeth, neither of them could laugh.” And then she tells us that here in this house Monika Goeth had touched a doorpost and said that she loved her father.

My mother’s hand on the door. There are hundreds of German-speaking tour guides in Krakow, and I chose the one who has met my mother.

I tell Malgorzata who I am. At first she doesn’t believe me, then she becomes bewildered and confused. I apologise to her. In order to find out more about my mother I had asked questions without revealing my identity. I say that I hope she understands my situation.

I had been determined to contact my mother before the end of the year. Now the year is almost over, it is well into fall, but I don’t want to write to my mother until I feel better prepared for it.

In the documentary about her meeting with Amon Goeth’s former maid Helen, my mother frequently cries. I can see the strain she’s under because of her father’s past. Krakow has a special meaning for her. I thought that I’d be able to understand my mother better if I, too, got to know this place.

The old man shows Malgorzata and me out. I pull the door firmly shut behind me.

There’s another tour I’ve booked in Krakow: a Schindler’s List tour.

I take a taxi to the meeting place in Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of Krakow. In the summer, Kazimierz is meant to be picturesque and charming; but today it seems dark and gloomy. The cobblestones are wet with rain. Our group of tourists visits the old Jewish cemetery, a synagogue, and a few locations from Schindler’s List. We see idyllic courtyards and narrow alleys.

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Many restaurants in Kazimierz serve gefilte fish and kosher meat. Pretty little cafés play traditional Klezmer music - the rhythm of a long-lost time - around the clock. There is a morbid, museum-like feel to the whole district.

The narrow little alleys and the rough paving stones remind me of Mea Shearim, the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. The difference is, Jews actually live in Mea Shearim. Our tour guide tells us that before World War II there were 70,000 Jews in Krakow. Now there are only a few hundred. Most of the Jewish people walking through Kazimierz these days are visitors. There are six tourists in my group; I want to know where they are from. The response: Poland, USA, France. They want to know where I come from. “Germany,” I say. “Ah!” they reply. I am glad we are not wearing name badges.

I still haven’t really told anybody about my family history, apart from my husband, my adoptive family, and a close friend. Not because I think I need to be ashamed of it, but because I don’t know how to deal with it. I find it hard to share my discovery. How could I put it? “Oh, by the way, I’m the granddaughter of a mass murderer”? I can’t cope with my background myself, and I don’t want to burden anybody else with it either. Not yet anyway.

Our small group moves on; we go over a little bridge across the Vistula river to the neighboring district of Podgorze. This is where the entire Jewish population of Krakow was crammed into a ghetto. The trams still ran through the middle of it, taking the people of Krakow across their city. Inside the ghetto, nobody was allowed to get in or out of the tram; there were no stops, and the doors and windows were locked for the duration. I wonder how the people of Krakow felt when they travelled through here.

Today a large office building stands in the square that used to be the center of the ghetto, and there is a bus depot too. On the edge, a few sections of the ghetto walls remain. To add insult to injury, these tall walls surrounding the people behind them had arches at the top - they were built in the shape of Jewish tombstones. The message to the Jews was clear: You won’t get out alive.

The victims are remembered at Ghetto Heroes Square. Empty, larger-than-life chairs dotted around the square are meant to convey a sense of the devastation in the ghetto after it had been liquidated: Everything laid to waste, no people in the streets, only furniture and other personal possessions that the Jews had been forced to leave behind.

I find the installation too cold, too conceptual. Hundreds of people were killed during the clearing of the ghetto. Every chair represents 1000 Jews who were murdered. The brutalities that were committed here remain abstract. But how can they be displayed? Schindler’s List is very graphic, but survivors say that even Spielberg’s film barely hints at the real horror that emanated from Amon Goeth.

This is an edited extract from My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege, Published by Hachette. Available now.