By Tiffany Parks
For most of her young life, Jennifer Teege felt as if an invisible weight were anchored to her soul.
She didn’t know why. After all, she was one of the lucky orphans at the Salberg House Orphanage in Munich. At age 7, she was adopted by the Sieber family, who changed her name from Jennifer Goeth to Jennifer Sieber and loved her unconditionally.
But at 38 she learned the dark family secret that had weighed on her. The revelation sent her on a journey of self-discovery and healing, not only for herself, but also for the people who were haunted by a toxic remnant from her bloodline.
“I was in the library and came across a bright-red book cover. The subtitle of the book read “The Life Story of Monika Goeth, Daughter of the Concentration Camp Commander of Schindler’s List.” I knew the name and the picture was that of my biological mother. My knees buckled,” Teege said.
Teege had seen “Schindler’s List.” She cringed when she saw Amon Goeth, the Nazi commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, take delight in murdering innocent Jews. The implications of her connection to the monster were even worse because she knew her birth resulted from a union between German Monika Goeth and a Nigerian father.
“I felt as if my life was a lie that I was betrayed. Why didn’t my biological mother tell me?” Teege said.
“I had to find out for myself about the truth of what happened. I started visiting these places where the murders happened. I went to Poland to visit the villa in Plaszow where Amon Goeth shot prisoners from the balcony. I talked to survivors of his reign of terror,” she said.
“It was a significant act when Jennifer Teege went to the actual place where all of the events happened,” said Peggy Freedman, past president and founding member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Georgia. “As a society, we don’t understand how space and time interact. When you are standing in a place that is across time with someone who is your ancestor, whether it’s external or internal, you’re acknowledging the past in a way that is very meaningful and powerful.”
After years of gathering information from countless conversations and visits, Teege had to decide whether to share her secret with the rest of the world.
In 2014, her book, “Amon,” was published in Germany. Translated into English as “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me,” the book came out this year in the United States. It is an honest, raw portrayal of her feelings toward her distant mother, her doting grandmother, her adopted family and Amon Goeth.
“After writing the book, my life changed. I have discovered that I have an ease with people because they see how open my heart is about my life,” Teege said.
She quit her advertising job of 15 years because her book was having a healing effect on society. She was invited to speak to audiences around the world.
“When I go to Israel and America and all over the world, people are really fascinated with the story. A lot of audience members are Holocaust survivors or their descendents. They see that I am nothing like the Nazi ideal image. They have hope when they see me because although we look similar, I am nothing like Amon Goeth. I reject everything he stood for,” Teege said.
Teege’s personal journey has made her a strong advocate of people aggressively investigating their heritage.
“Adoptees like Teege are really interesting to genealogists because instead of tracing two parents, they can trace four parents, so genealogists get excited when they get to work with adopted people. There is more interest,” Freedman said.
Almost every week Jeremy Katz, the director of the Breman Museum’s Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History, assists people tracing their family roots.
“Genealogists, as well as everyday people, come into the Breman archives all of the time to search through diaries, minutes, scrapbooks, synagogue records and photographs. It is fascinating to see the excitement on a person’s face when an unexpected historical detail is discovered,” Katz said.
He said there can be lifesaving advantages to seeking the past. “Death certificates and oral histories can tell a lot about the health of past family members. People may discover that several past family members suffered from a particular illness, and that knowledge may prompt someone to be more alert about his health or medical issues in general.”
Teege was able to trace her biological grandmother’s depression, which helped her understand her bouts of depression in her early life.
Not everybody has been a fan of her heritage-seeking mission, Teege said. The Internet is full of hate. “It is not easy when you start speaking the truth about the past, especially when it was infamous.”
Nevertheless, she believes that driving toward the truth trumps everything else.
“I am my own person. I am not just the granddaughter of Amon Goeth. I don’t believe that people can inherit guilt,” Teege said. “Responsibility and guilt are two different terms. Everybody has a responsibility to make society a better place, and that is what I believe am doing.”
Teege has often thought about what it would be like if she met her grandfather. Her book title provides her answer.
“I would not talk to him, but I would listen. It’s a basic rule of diplomacy. Only if you listen also to your enemies can you learn and change things,” Teege said.
Before her book discussion Nov. 19, the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center at 5 p.m. will screen “Inheritance,” a documentary about Teege’s mother and Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, one of Amon Goeth’s maids.
As for Teege, “I will write another book. I have been inspired by so many survivors’ stories, but enough time needs to pass.”