By Daniel Hubbard | October 13, 2013
Sometimes we like to think that genealogy tells us “who we are.” I think it might change who we are. I think it can connect us to history. I think it can help us understand the members of our families by revealing something of their formative experiences but I don’t think it tells us who we are in any deterministic sense. I am me regardless of what I just discovered about a sixth great-grandfather. Learning about his experience might change me, might make me think, but it doesn’t actually tell me who I am. Sometimes in fact our family history might tell us who we aren’t, despite the bond of blood.
Case in Point
An incredible example of this has appeared in the news over the last few weeks. A woman in Germany stumbled upon a book. A picture of a woman in the book looked familiar to her so she kept reading. After skimming through it, she read a summary of the life of the woman in the picture and that summary fit what she knew of her biological mother and her maternal grandmother who had committed suicide decades earlier. It was her own family history in that book.
She had grown up not really knowing her biological mother who had put her in a children’s home after becoming pregnant during a brief affair. Now she had found something of her past but this wasn’t the kind of discovery that tells you who you are. It was the kind that tells you who you are not.
The book she discovered was a memoir written by her biological mother. She learned that Ruth, her maternal grandmother, had worked for Oskar Schindler in Krakow in the mid 1940s, which is how she met Amon Goeth, commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp. She became his mistress and bore him a daughter ten months before he was executed for ordering torture and extermination and for personally torturing and killing a large but unknown number of people. In fact, he was so sadistic that he had been relieved of his command by the SS for his mistreatment of prisoners and eventually ruled mentally ill by SS doctors and committed to a mental institution. This was the maternal grandfather that she had never been told about. All she knew of Amon Goeth came from seeing him portrayed in Schindler’s List long before she knew that he was her grandfather.
That would be unnerving enough but there is one last twist. The woman in question, Jennifer Teege, is biracial. Her father was a Nigerian student. Given the chance, Amon Goeth would have personally shot her.
Our family history doesn’t always tell us about who we are. It can tell us, emphatically, who we are not. But it does always tells us something.
A few links to the story-