In 2008, then 38-year-old Jennifer Teege was perusing the Central Library in Hamburg, Germany, near her home. Out of thousands of books, one dust jacket caught her eye.
Born to a German woman and a Nigerian man, Teege had lived in an orphanage from infancy until she was adopted at 7 years old. She remembered her mother, Monika Hertwig, from brief contact with her and her grandmother as a child. Leafing through the pages of photographs and biographical text, Teege realized the information in the book matched her adoption records.
One glaring truth, especially, sliced through her life’s own pages. In that moment, Teege discovered her grandfather was the Nazi “Butcher of Płaszów,” Amon Goeth. Ralph Fiennes immortalized his deeds on screen in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”
Teege is now the author of an international bestselling novel, “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past,” co-written with Nikola Sellmair. Teege will speak of this polarizing revelation, the search for identity and its positive outcomes at Prochnow Auditorium.
The Jan. 28 presentation, hosted by the Martin-Springer Institute, begins at 7:30 p.m. and is free to NAU and CCC students, $10 for the public. Attendees need a ticket, available by calling 523-5661 or visiting ticketing.nau.edu.
From her home in Germany Teege, now 45, recounted her life’s division into a “before and after” in a recent interview.
“If I look it backwards that I lived in Israel, maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s really such a strange coincidence to pick up this book out of thousands of books in the library,” she recalled. “I don’t overdo it because otherwise it means we don’t have power of our own lives … I’ m not religious, but I do believe in fate.”
The very next day she saw her mother’s face again when the PBS documentary “Inheritance” aired on German television for the first time. A battle with depression soon followed, but with the help of a therapist, she began to sieve questions.
Studying in Israel in her early 20s, learning fluent Hebrew and making many Jewish friends, led her to believe her grandfather would have, in fact, killed her. But with time, Teege said she’s been able to self-examine.
“In the beginning I was very confused, so today this is what I’m preaching, that you can’t inherit guilt,” she explained. “Responsibility, yes, but not guilt, because why should I be guilty if I wasn’t involved in the war? Just to be a relative of someone does not make you guilty.”
Writing the book, she said, was not a therapy. First, she explained its two-part structure splices her emotional account with a family chronicle of her mother, grandmother and grandfather within the greater context of history.
“What was most important for me was to share my perspective and let people look into my head, make them understand how it feels. This process is something that is so individual and so specific that I thought I had to write it down,” Teege said. “It’s something that’s worth to share with a big audience because a lot of people can relate to it.”
These humanistic themes have sparked friendships with those who share a love of this multi-layered perspective — even Holocaust survivors.
“When I speak with people I try to have a strong connection on all kinds of levels,” she explained of these relationships. “We talk about daily stuff. We talk about their families, everything, and that’s what makes it so precious to me.”
And in the same way she approaches conference groups, survivors and her Israeli friends the factor of “universal” identity becomes apparent. But dark themes of cruelty and betrayal, Teege said, are continually relevant in a world full of extremism, anti-Semitism and racism.
“If you do understand more about the Holocaust and the perpetrators, and why people act the way they did, then I think it will eventually help for the future,” she added.
Above all, Teege said, is self-acceptance, “When I talk about empathy, empathy starts with yourself. Only when you’re able to love yourself and know who you are, you are able to love the opposite.”
One question, though, still follows her at conferences: Why didn’t she just leave her mother’s book at the library?
Teege explained one cannot run away from the truth. “And you can’t run away from your own life. What I learned and what I try to tell people is you are who you are and that’s OK.”