My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me

June 16, 2015

Suppose, just suppose … you, a married interracial person with children of your own, were to stroll into a bookstore one day. A new book on the shelf attracts your attention: the author’s name improbably matches the name of the mother who gave you up for adoption when you were little, a woman you can barely recall. Is this a coincidence? Is this really a book by your mother? You turn the pages and see a photo, a name … it’s your grandmother. You were closer to her during those early years so you are certain. Yes, this is a book about your long-lost family. You stand in the bookstore, lost in this book, lost in long-buried memories, turning the pages of this message-in-a-bottle, and then it happens: you discover your grandfather. The man your treasured grandmother loved so much that she named your mother for him. He is … this cannot be … one of the most famous and brutal genocidal beasts of the Nazi era. He is a man who, taking one look at your brown skin, wouldn’t have thought twice about shooting you for sport from the balcony of the fancy home he occupied as a concentration camp commandant. You have discovered your family at last.

Amazing as this seems, this is the real-life predicament that Jennifer Teege finds herself in at the opening of My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me. And, in some sense, this is also the story that much of Germany wakes up to every day. How does one deal with one’s past? Especially a past that has either been kept hidden completely, or warped into something sufficiently sanitary that it can handled so long as we understand that it is the past. Other times, other people, for sure, but not us.

The book takes us with Jennifer on her journey of re-discovery. It starts in the past and working to the present. We learn about her grandparents, both of them. Then her parents, the white mother and the black father. Her caretaker at the orphanage where her mother placed her shortly after birth, her adoptive parents and brothers, and how she became adopted by them. And the Jewish Israelis, descendants of Holocaust survivors, who befriended Jennifer when she lived in Israel.

Jennifer’s mental and emotional states are so raw throughout that it almost feels like we are reading her diary. There is anger, fear, resentment at being abandoned, resentment over being different. Slowly we realize that many of these emotions colored her life before that day in the bookstore, but now these emotions must be poured into a new vessel. Who am I? How can I live in the world? Can I ever return to the world that I had constructed for myself? These are complicated and compelling questions.

Jennifer’s co-author is reporter Nikola Sellmair. She is not a ghostwriter. Rather, Nikola’s essays alternate every few pages with Jennifer’s quasi-diary, and provide something like an objective perspective on Germany, its past and present, and on Jennifer as well. The essays provide useful, informative and fascinating insights into the questions that frame Jennifer’s story: What actually happened during the Nazi campaign to eradicate European Jewry? How have subsequent generations of Germans come to terms with their past? Likewise, how have Israelis come to understand the Holocaust?

We may think that this is a story about other people, but we all have skeletons. Some are in the closet. Others we create anew every day. Can we see the way they haunt us?

Another story about this book & author from Ha’aretz.

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