Nearly 350 people turned out to hear writer Jennifer Teege tell her compelling personal story on Nov. 5 as the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island celebrated the importance of philanthropy at its Annual Campaign event.
Teege’s message was one of hope. And her personal story, detailed in her book, “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me,” brought a hush to the newly renovated Gussie and Victor Baxt Social Hall.
Teege began by saying that she was placed in an orphanage at 4 weeks old and adopted at the age of 7. But the part of her life story that truly captivated the audience was about her birth family and how she learned, at age 40, the family secret kept from her for so long.
Her birth mother, who had given her up at such a young age, was the daughter of Amon Goeth, commandant of the infamous Plaszow concentration camp, near Krakow, Poland. He was a central figure in the movie “Schindler’s List.”
This discovery was made by sheer chance one sunny day in August 2013 at the Central Library, in Hamburg, Germany, where Teege lives — and it sent her into a deep depression. A wife and the mother of two children, she was no longer able to function, she said. And she became obsessed with her past and the Holocaust.
So great was the shock, she said, that she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
With help from her husband, friends and a therapist, Teege has come to terms with her past and learned that she has nothing to fear from it. Eventually, she traveled to Krakow, she told the audience, to the memorial at the site of the death camp.
Why is this a story of hope for a non-Jewish German-Nigerian woman speaking to donors at a campaign event? Before she learned about her past, Teege told the audience she lived in Israel for five years and is a fluent Hebrew speaker. Perhaps the hope comes from the lessons she has learned.
“Only if you look at it [the Holocaust] can you learn about it. We have to teach about it,” she said, so it will never happen again. Holocaust education is now mandatory in Germany.
“Today I am rational again,” Teege said. “Family secrets are toxic. If you have them, it’s time to lift them.”
Before Teege’s talk, attendees were welcomed by the evening’s co-chairs, Michael and Susan Eides, as well as James Pious, philanthropy co-chair with Susan Froehlich, and Mitzi Berkelhammer, chair of the Board of the Alliance.
Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Alliance, also greeted the crowd, and discussed the mission of the Alliance in Rhode Island and around the world.
He thanked everyone for the warm welcome he and his family have received since he arrived at the Alliance three months ago.
“I’m looking forward to meeting all of you and working with all of you to build community,” he said.
Pious announced that, thus far, the campaign has received $1.5 million from 900 donors. “We are off to an exceptional start,” he said, “but there is much work to be done.”
All remarked on the size of the crowd, one of the biggest in recent memory, according to Dan Hamel, CFO of the Alliance.
Two donor receptions were held prior to the main event. A reception for Pacesetters and Lions of Judah was held in the Nelson & Sapinsley Families Gymnasium, chaired by Ralph Posner and Faye Wisen. Participants heard a musical performance by Luba Agranovsky and Dmitri Kasyuk, who moved to Israel from Russia in 1990 with help from the Jewish Agency For Israel. The duo played classical duets on flute and piano, intermingled with tales of anti-Semitism in Russia, their transition to life in Israel and their deep appreciation for the support of the global Jewish community.
There was also a reception for the Double Chai Society, the next generation of Alliance philanthropists and leaders, which was chaired by Bethany and Rich Sutton.
FRAN OSTENDORF is the editor of The Jewish Voice.