Friday, August 12, 2016

My Father Would have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair

One day Jennifer Teege picked up a book in the library called "I Have to Love my Father, Don't I?"  The small photo of the author on the cover looks somewhat familiar to her and, when she reads the subtitle of the book, she discovers it is written by her biological mother.  Born out of wedlock to a German woman and her Nigerian boyfriend, she was handed over to an orphanage when she was an infant, put in foster care and eventually adopted.  While she had some contact with her mother and her maternal grandmother prior to the adoption, she never saw her grandmother again and had only seen her mother once when she was about 20 (a reunion organized by her half sister, the daughter of her mother's first marriage).

Jennifer knew absolutely nothing of her maternal grandfather - who turned out to be Amon Goeth, the vicious commandant of Plaszow concentration camp who is depicted by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler's List.  Her grandmother had been Goeth's mistress in the concentration camp and stuck by him even after he was executed for war crimes in 1945 (shortly after Teege's mother was born).  The remainder of the book deals with how Teege reconciles herself to this past she knew nothing about.

She is particularly troubled because as a young child she adored her grandmother - she was the only one who showed her affection.  How could her beloved grandmother have turned a blind eye to what her monster of a lover was doing?  Apparently not without consequences as Teege discovers she had killed herself.  Teege also revisits the feelings of abandonment she felt from her mother - and while she is not able to re-establish a relationship with her, she does gain insight into the terrible feelings of guilt her mother has always lived with.  She also questions her adoptive father a bit more - he had always been obsessed with the facts a figures surrounding the Holocaust and now she thinks he was trying to reconcile them with his parents who were Nazi sympathizers.  Finally, having spent four years studying in Israel, and developed strong friendships there, she has to build up the nerve to reveal this secret to her Israeli friends so she can continue the friendships despite her past.

Teege's narrative is interspersed with that of Nikola Sellmair, a journalist who writes about her own interviews with Teege's family and friends during Teege's exploration of her past, and provides certain historical context to Teege's personal story.

An unusual book, this is a very interesting perspective, that is the descendants of the perpetrators of the Holocaust rather than the descendants of survivors.  And it shows how the guilt and confusion can survive for generations - even among those who were not actually raised by the perpetrators and did not know of their past until they were adults.

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