Monday, January 26, 2015

Overcoming history

Jennifer Teege
Thanks to the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List, most people know the story of how Oskar Schindler was able to save Jews from concentration camps by putting them to work in the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp outside of Krakow making munitions.  The film starred Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ben Kingsley as the Jewish accountant, and Ralph Fiennes as the psychopathic commandant of the concentration camp which supplied the workers to Schindler’s factory.  Schindler's List made a tremendous impact, was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and came away with seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Part of the film’s impact was due to the fact that it was based on a true story.  Schindler was a businessman playboy who started out as a war profiteer who had no compunctions about using slave labor.  Over time, though, he developed a conscience and morphed from war profiteer into a hero by using his own money to pay the commandant for more and more workers to be transferred to his factory.    Because the factory was producing munitions, the argument could be made it was necessary to keep the workers alive as long as possible.  In the end, 1100 workers’ lives were saved.

We know what happened to Schindler after the war.  His name came to represent “The Good German” and he was honored by Israel as a “righteous man.”  Anybody who bears the name of Schindler would be proud of the association with their famous ancestor.

But imagine yourself wandering through a library one day, just browsing for a book to read.  You come across a book related to Schindler and realize for the first time that the name of the concentration camp commandant was Amon Goeth.  You are adopted, but you know that your birth mother’s name was also Goeth.  It’s an unsettling coincidence.  But nothing like the feelings that wash over you as you read further and come to the awareness that your birth mother was this very same man’s daughter.  And you are Agon Goeth’s granddaughter, this man you know from the movie, who used to shoot slackers in the concentration camp from his balcony for sport, and then send in his dogs to rip their bodies to pieces.

Tomorrow, the 27th of January, is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the concentration camp just outside Krakow.  To mark the occasion, ARD, the German public television consortium, has published links online to sixteen radio and television programs having to do with Auschwitz and its aftermath, and on how Germans are processing this event in their history now in the third generation.  One of these is the story of Jennifer Teege, the granddaughter of Amon Goeth and her discovery of her origins.*  

Adding to the drama of the discovery is the fact that Jennifer is a beautiful woman with dark skin.  Americans and others for whom race is still a salient category, and who assign children of parents of different races, like their president, to the black category, would call her black.  Jennifer Teege has been assigned by fate the task of uncovering not only who her maternal grandfather was, but who this man from Nigeria was her mother had a fling with, and who added yet more complexity to her biological make-up. Fortunately, after her mother dropped her off at a catholic orphanage when she was only a few weeks old, she was taken in by a foster family who then adopted her and raised her to become the intelligent and articulate, obviously warmly loved, wife and mother she is today.  There’s one more twist to the story, which many will find ironic.  At some point in her life, before discovering her origins, she went to Israel, where she settled for a time, learned Hebrew, and fell in love, before returning to her home in Germany.

The story of Jennifer Teege is not new.  She published her story in German last year and an English-language version will be published in April with the title: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family's Nazi Past.     But I am grateful to ARD for bringing her story out with all the other reminders of the time into which I was born and a people with whom I identify.

I grew up with people who spent hours talking about their roots.  We were able, on my father’s side, to trace the path of ancestors from Scotland and Ireland to Nova Scotia and New England.  All the immigrants on my mother’s side came from Northern Germany.  One of the great delights in recent years was the discovery that, when I went to visit my mother’s brother-from-a-different-mother in Hamburg in 1961, there was a little girl in the next room.  Her name is Daniela, and she would turn out to be a friend and cousin I now welcome decades later into my life with open arms, and a fellow sleuth in revealing to her siblings that their grandmother was not their grandfather’s first wife, and that he had previously married my grandmother and given birth to my mother, and that they had a whole line of blood relatives in America.

Ancestry sleuthing has been a source of curiosity and delight, in other words, for me and for most of the people I know caught up in the search for roots.  We may joke about uncovering a horse thief or a pirate somewhere in the blood line, but when an ancestor turns out to be on the shady side, we feel sufficiently far removed to feel no shame of connection.  And when they turn out to be heroic figures, we beat the drums of association.

This game takes on an added dimension for adopted children who struggle with nagging questions like why their mothers gave them up and whether there are things in their background about which they would feel shame if they uncovered them.  The endless academic debate over the relative importance of nature and nurture is one thing in the ivory tower.  It takes on a different cast when it settles into your own flesh and blood.  One has only to think of all the children born of rape, including the thousands of children born following an invasion by a foreign army.  Some of them have to live with the knowledge not only that their fathers were rapists, but that they were thrown away by their mothers, who could not bear to see in their eyes the man who assaulted them.  

Only in modern times have we begun to think in terms of people as individuals, with separate and distinct entities, and with human rights quite apart from those claimed by tribes and nation and family.  Today, as the struggle of Jennifer Teege to come to terms with her personal history illustrates, we can get past impulses to feel shame and fear.  I don't know about you, but the emotion I associate with her is admiration, as I imagine her sharing her history with others like her Israeli friends.  And explaining to her children who their great-grandfather was.

All the same, it is easier for most of us to deny the ugly reality of blood lines.  Even Jennifer Teege herself says at one point that while it was difficult growing up with dark skin in a race-conscious Germany, that racial difference would turn out to be a major aid in getting her out of the months-long depression that followed her discovery of her connection with Amon Goeth.  One book reviewer takes issue with the claim that Goeth would have shot her for being black, but for her it has turned out to be a comfort.  As, no doubt, was the fact that her grandmother was Goeth’s mistress and not his wife, even though she did take his name.  The struggle illustrates the importance we still place on blood and on tribal connections.

We may be living in an enlightened age of humanist values where we are to be judged not by the color of our skin or other accidents of birth but by the content of our character.  But this means engaging the head and living up to the principle of judging each other as self-standing individuals with our own moral choices, and not surrendering to sentimental notions of racial and national identity.  We are all descended from monsters and rapists.  Some of us just happen to have more distance from them than others, but that distance, too, is merely an accident of birth, and nothing to take credit for.   Overcoming history, as the South African policy of peace and reconciliation shows us, is not just a theoretical possibility.  We can make it happen.  Not by forgetting it, but by telling stories.  About the victims, most of all, of course.  But also about Oskar Schindler.  And learning from Teege that sometimes you don’t have a choice to forget, but must find a place to put the facts of history in your head without letting them drive you insane.

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, one of the boys defines history as, “just one bloody thing after another.”  It’s a great line.  And it is all that history is if we choose not to engage with it.  The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz tomorrow is a chance to do more than that.  Most people I know will not know another year has rolled around.  And if they do hear of it, they will prefer to just move on.  My father had a number of pithy sayings he would drop into conversation and drive me up a wall with – like "even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day.”  Another was the line from the Gospel of Matthew, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”  Let bygones be bygones.

It was by chance, not by design, that I happened to come across the ARD focus on Auschwitz on this anniversary occasion.  I’m glad I did.  I’m glad somebody’s still paying attention.

*I don’t know how long these links will remain.  That hour-long interview lacks English subtitles, but there is another interview which Jennifer gives in English on Talking Germany.  The story is also available at a number of news sources, such as this one.  And, if your German is up to it, there is an extensive interview with Jennifer on Mashpedia with Thadeusz, very much worth seeing in its entirety.  In this interview she is asked why she wrote the book.  It was to give people hope, she says, hope that the world can move on, that people can recover from from misery and from depression.  She'd like people to see her as living proof of that fact.

I should point out that Jennifer Teege is not the only grandchild of a concentration camp commandant to open her life to public scrutiny.  Rainer Höss, the grandson of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, has also gone public, written a book, and done a number of interviews on television, including this one on Südwest Rundfunk Channel 1.  And there are others.  The damage done to individual psyches is still being worked out in the third and fourth generation.

Also, worth adding here, I think, is the fact that the film Night Will Fall will be shown around the world tomorrow (in the U.S., unfortunately, only on HBO cable television) to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Photo credit: photo credited to Miguel Ferraz in taz (the German newspaper, die Tageszeitung)

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