What if you learned that your family’s most cherished stories are a pack of revisionist lies used to cover up shocking crimes? At the age of 38, Jennifer Teege was doing some research at the library when she found a book that was a biography of her biological mother. From the book, Jennifer learned that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, SS commandant of the Plaszow labor camp.
Her beloved grandmother, Ruth Irene lived with Goeth at Plaszow. (In Schindler’s List, Ruth Irene buries her head under the pillows while he stands on the balcony shooting Jews.) Ruth Irene kept Goeth’s photo by her bed for the rest of her life. She told Jennifer that Goeth was a kind and gentle man who never killed anyone.
When Jennifer revealed her secret past to her adopted family, it almost destroyed them. Her adopted father became obsessed with studying the Holocaust. Before dying, he revealed that his obsession arose from fear of not knowing what his father did during the war. What if his father committed crimes while serving in the German Army? The German Army was used to commit war crimes on the Eastern Front in Russia.
He never learned the truth about what his father did during the war. German soldiers were discouraged from keeping diaries or journals and their letters were censored. The Nazis wanted to control all the information so that their propaganda was the only narrative available. (Today Putin’s Russia and Chairman Xi’s China use internet firewalls to control the narrative and cover up probable crimes against humanity in Ukraine and Xinjiang.)
Jennifer and her adopted father struggled with the ethical dilemma of what responsibility, if any, they should bear for the actions of their family members. Americans may discover a similar dilemma when they log on to Ancestry.com and similar sites looking to build their family trees. The U.S. has plenty of its own horrors.
What if you learned that during Jim Crow days your kindly grandfather and his buddies used to drive along country roads at night looking for black people to terrorize? Hurling watermelons out car windows was a popular “sport”. What if your grandparents show up in an old photograph screaming and hitting black college students who were attempting to desegregate the lunch counter?
Or maybe one of your ancestors served with Arthur MacArthur (Douglas’ dad) during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) when the U.S. used dum dum bullets to suppress a Filipino independence movement. Dum dums were banned as too inhumane by a treaty signed in the Hague, but the Americans negotiated an exemption covering their use in the Philippines.
What if you found a book that proves your great-great-granddad was one of Chivington’s 100-day militia? In 1864, Chivington’s militia attacked Black Kettle’s encampment at Sand Creek, Colorado without provocation and massacred the inhabitants who were mostly the old and sick, or women and children. They didn’t have a camera crew with them, but they bragged to the local papers about their manly deeds against noncombatants. Both the federal and Colorado governments insisted they lacked jurisdiction to prosecute their crimes.
What if you discover that your God-fearing grandfather is one of the men implicated in the Southern Baptist’s sex scandal? The denomination recently released a report revealing decades of sex crimes (rape and molestation) committed by church leaders and covered up by the church hierarchy. The denomination still seems to be more interested in protecting the perpetrators than in apologizing to and comforting the victims.
Like Jennifer and her adopted father, we may struggle to assimilate the awful truth about our families. The closer we are in time to the perpetrators, the more difficult the emotional distress. Jennifer Teege descended into a deep depression that required intensive psychotherapy before she could reconcile herself with her new knowledge. However, she eventually found peace in knowing the truth. Knowing the truth is always better than living a lie.
About Norma Shirk
My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps small employers to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy.
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