Atlanta (CNN)Jennifer Teege thought she knew the hard truths of her life: that her German mother left her in the care of nuns when she was 4 weeks old, and that her biological father was Nigerian, making her the only black child in her Munich neighborhood.
But the hardest truth came to her years later on a warm August day in Hamburg when she walked into the central library and picked up a red book with a black-and-white picture of a woman on the cover. It was titled “I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I?”
As Teege, then 38, flipped through the pages, she felt she’d been caught in a furious storm that had suddenly come from nowhere.
She had unearthed the ghastly family secret.
She looked at the names of people and places in the book and realized that the woman on the cover was her biological mother.
Ruth, who later in life took Goeth’s surname, never showed any remorse except once, according to Hertwig. Shortly before Ruth committed suicide in 1983, she said she should have done more to help people.
After finding Hertwig’s book, Teege knew she had to seek her mother out — not so much for a reckoning, she says, but because she had too many questions swirling in her head. She wanted details that only her birth mother could know.
By then, many months had passed and Teege had already gone to Poland, already seen the places where her mother had also returned to learn the truth. She found Hertwig’s address and went to see her, not knowing whether there would be acceptance or rejection. She had learned so much about her mother through her book, the documentary and online research. Yet she didn’t know her.
They visited Ruth’s grave together, and Hertwig talked about Amon Goeth as though he were at Plaszow only yesterday. Hertwig has said in interviews that speaking ill of her father feels like a betrayal of her mother.
She was living with the dead, Hertwig told her daughter.
Teege says she saw in her mother what she has seen in relatives of other Nazi perpetrators, especially their children. Many cannot bear to live with the sins of their fathers. Others have sterilized themselves, as though a Nazi gene could be passed on through birth.
Teege is thankful she is different than her mother, who Teege says still lives every day with the notion that she has to atone for Goeth’s deeds. Teege has seen this kind of suffering in the children of Holocaust victims as well.
“The second generation had a lot of trouble dealing with the Holocaust,” Teege says. “My generation, we are different. We know the difference between responsibility and guilt.”
Teege doesn’t believe in inherited guilt. Everyone, she says, has the right to his or her own life story.
Teege’s life story is punctuated with ironies and coincidences so great that they prompted her to rethink the concept of fate.
As a young woman, long before her discovery, she attended the Sorbonne in Paris for a year and, in a life drawing class, she met Noa, an Israeli woman. Teege later vacationed in Israel, and on one trip, after sleeping through her 4:30 a.m. alarm and missing her flight back to Germany, she ended up staying. She attended Tel Aviv University, earned a degree in Middle Eastern and African studies and learned to speak Hebrew.
“That I chose Israel … that I missed the flight and stayed — this makes my story more striking,” Teege says. “Destiny.”
She was in Israel when “Schindler’s List” opened, and everyone was talking about Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust movie. Teege watched it later on TV in her Tel Aviv flat. It was just a movie to her then, one that she thought had too much of a Hollywood ending.
The subtitle of her mother’s book was, “The Life Story of Monika Goeth, Daughter of the Concentration Camp Commandant in ‘Schindler’s List.’ ” That day in the Hamburg library, Teege’s mind churned to recall the movie. Suddenly, it became deeply personal.
Teege says she does not want to keep secrets from her friends and family. Two years went by before she could reveal her Nazi roots to her friends in Israel, descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors. She didn’t know if any of them were directly connected to Plaszow, and she was afraid how they might react.
But in her book, Teege describes her Jewish friends as being empathetic. “They cried with me.”
She also has spoken with her young sons.
“It was important to me not to keep it a secret,” she says. She doesn’t want them to go through the shock of discovery, which became almost as traumatic for Teege as the truth itself.
“But I have not let them watch ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” she says. “They should be older.”
People assume she has watched the movie many times. They are wrong. She doesn’t feel the need to watch it over and over. She knows her grandfather’s story.
A woman with two lives
It has been more than seven years since Teege learned she was the granddaughter of Amon Goeth. She thinks of her stranger-than-fiction life as a puzzle with many pieces but missing a frame. Her discovery at the Hamburg library helped her put it all together.
“My life is much better than what it used to be,” she says.
She is thankful she had an identity in her “before” years. That’s what she held onto in the “after” years.
Teege’s mother has not called her daughter again since their last meeting. In Teege’s book, Hertwig says she didn’t understand her daughter’s need for reconciliation and felt it was too late to start a relationship.
But Teege’s quest to know her true identity opened other doors. Growing up, she’d never felt a need to find her biological father. But once she had come to terms with her mother’s family, she sought out her father, too. They finally met, and the two remain in contact.
“It’s a nice addition — to know my black heritage,” she says. “And crucial. It’s part of my identity.”
At 45, Teege says she is now a woman with two lives. She is a mother and a teacher. That’s the part she calls normal. The other life is led as the granddaughter of Amon Goeth. She knows she has to keep the two separate.
Most of all, she has learned not to live constantly in the past.