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Americans have an easy time relegating WWII to the annals of history. Pearl Harbor is the only spot on American soil where any battles were fought, and we are at least three generations removed from D-Day. My own paternal grandfather was too young to fight. Additionally, despite the horror of war, our national pride borders on nostalgia when we discuss or study the time period. The soldiers who fought are part of “The Greatest Generation”, we view ourselves as the Allies’ hero, our war memorials are iconic. We were, in short, the good guys, as far as national consideration is concerned.
We have a tendency to gloss over our own atrocities in regards to our own citizens in WWII. We don’t want to see the layers of good and evil and gray that surround a nation immersed in war and hopefully despite our tenuous political times we will never see the evidence of a nation complicit in genocide scattered around our landscape in memorial to the lives lost there.
It wasn’t until I read My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me that it occurred to me that Europeans live with the scars of WWII literally dotting the landscape in which they live their lives. And for German citizens, such sights can only be reminders that for some of them, beloved family members could be viewed, by them and by the world, as the enemy.
Jennifer Teege was fostered and then adopted by a German family, but she maintained a relationship with her biological mother and grandmother. One day, as an adult with children of her own, she happened upon a book with a photo of Amon Goeth with his mistress and daughter, and recognized her own family. Horrifying for anyone, it was doubly worse for Teege, Nigerian on her father’s side. Because she is biracial, there is no doubt that her biological grandfather would have wanted her dead.
Goeth operated the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland, where her grandmother enjoyed a luxurious life to the sound of gunshots and torture inflicted upon the Jewish prisoners by her lover and eventual father of her child. When Teege confronts her grandmother, she claims that Plaszow was a work camp, nothing more, despite testimony from female prisoners that they begged her for salvation and mercy during their imprisonment. She claims to have helped when she could, but the gradients of truth are lost to time, and all we have are the facts: Amon Goeth was an unrepentant murderer and butcher, and Teege’s grandmother lived and loved alongside him while he committed his atrocities.
Stories such as this are not uncommon among Germany’s remaining WWII generation. Even among those with known Nazi ties, there is always the claim of inculpability, of ignorance. It is easier to turn a blind eye to horror. There is no moral impetus to stop or change something you cannot see. And there is hopefully shame, a comprehension on the part of at least some that they allowed the Holocaust to happen, and their unwillingness to confirm it is due to their own loathing at their past inaction.
Most of Teege’s book deals with her personal journey of identity and surviving her subsequent depression when she unearthed her family’s secrets. She writes of an estrangement from her adoptive family, the reopening of old wounds growing up the only Black child in a white family, a sobering reminder that cultural racism did not begin and does not end at the borders of the U.S. However, the release of this book at this time in the U.S. feels like a warning. We know the effects of a blind eye turned to atrocities. We’ve seen how the Nazi party rose to power, and we know how men like Goeth, who in another life would have been a serial killer, are given freedom to wreak their havoc with literal captives, out in the open, and with no recourse for their victims.
If we are not active, if we do not proceed with both eyes open as our political sphere becomes more divisive, and more liberties are taken with our constitutional and inherent freedoms, we will see another Hitler’s Germany rise up in the United States. There are enough Jennifer Teeges in the world, suffering needlessly for the sins of generations past. We cannot add to their number.