There are unknown truths in all of our pasts, things we never learned about our parents, grandparents and further back in our personal histories. Sometimes, there are carefully protected secrets. And when – if – they are unearthed, they can be life-altering.
This past week, I met two people who fall into that category, one German, one Canadian, both with grandfathers connected to the Holocaust, on opposite sides of the barbed-wire fence. Both have lived most of their lives unaware of this history.
Their stories are incredible.
Jennifer Teege told hers at an event in Vancouver last weekend (I was the interviewer). Born in 1970, Ms. Teege is German, like her biological mother; her biological father is from Nigeria. When she was four weeks old, her mother placed her in an orphanage, but Jennifer continued to have contact with her biological mother and grandmother. When she was 3, she was taken in by a foster family who later adopted her. She lost touch with her biological family, but always kept photos of her grandmother, Ruth Irene, who had provided solace and comfort through the childhood instability.
In 2008, Ms. Teege, then 38, was at the central library in Hamburg, Germany, and – she doesn't know what compelled her to do this – pulled a book off the shelf called I Have to Love My Father, Don't I? Leafing through it, she was struck by an eerie sense of the familiar: the photos, names and dates that matched those on her adoption papers. She realized this was a book about her mother.
Worse – it was a book about her mother's father. And her mother's father was Amon Goeth, the notorious Nazi commandant of Plaszow, the German camp near Krakow, not far from Auschwitz. If you've seen Schindler's List, you would remember him; he was played by Ralph Fiennes.
After reading the book cover to cover, Ms. Teege stayed up all night, researching her grand-father online.
"I feel like I have entered a chamber of horrors," she wrote in her memoir, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family's Nazi Past.
"I read about his decimation of the Polish ghettoes, his sadistic murders, the dogs he trained to tear humans apart. … [He was] a man who killed people by the dozens, and, what is more, who enjoyed it. My grandfather. I am the granddaughter of a mass murderer."
Sitting in the front row as Ms. Teege eloquently told her story to a Vancouver audience last weekend was Mark Oliver. He had met Ms. Teege the previous year; a mutual friend introduced them, struck by the commonalities in their lives.
"I was just gobsmacked," Mr. Oliver told me over coffee this week. "It was a mirror image of my own dilemma."
Mr. Oliver's father was H.A.D. Oliver, a well-known legal and political figure in British Columbia. After he died in 2011, family members, going through his effects, found an old suitcase in the basement. It was a Pandora's box full of photographs and documents that revealed the until-then concealed truth about his family history.
There was a New York Times article from 1934: "Film Man's Auto Bombed in Berlin" read the headline. "Jewish Owner of Theatre That Played 'Catherine the Great' Has a Narrow Escape." The article explains it was the first and last showing because the film was banned on the grounds that showing a film with a Jewish actress and director "was repugnant to public sentiment." That Jewish theatre owner was David Oliver, Mark's grandfather.
Mark Oliver never met his grandfather, who died in 1947, but, like Ms. Teege, he had grown up with a special bond with his grandmother. From that suitcase, he learned that she, an actress, had also been Jewish. And that her sister, Ruth, died at Auschwitz.
Mr. Oliver, who describes the family as lapsed Catholic, did not know his father was Jewish, or that his grandfather had been a pioneer in the German film industry. David Oliver owned a chain of European cinemas and was a prolific producer of films, including the horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Mr. Oliver didn't know his grandfather had been a founder of the German film consortium UFA. Or that he founded Iberica Films in Spain with other Jewish-German exiles (including director Hans Behrendt, who returned to Austria and died in Auschwitz).
There was a pile of photos from that era; one that Mr. Oliver didn't bring to our meeting shows his grandfather on the red carpet shaking hands with Leni Riefenstahl, who would later make the infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.
"We opened this suitcase and it revealed a whole secret family we had no idea about," Mr. Oliver said. He believes that his father, wanting to rise in Vancouver society, had reinvented himself. To make his story stick, he buried his past in that suitcase.
"I wonder whether my dad wanted us to find it. Because he could have chucked it and didn't. If he didn't feel at liberty to talk about what had happened to his family, then haven't we just been running from Nazis for 80-plus years as a consequence of that?"
Mr. Oliver is now making a documentary about his grandfather (working title, UFA Man). As part of that, he is screening some of the surviving examples of his film work. On Sunday, several of those films will be presented at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, including Robert Wiene's 1920 German expressionist film, Genuine.
The documentary is a challenge; there are so many threads to chase. But Mr. Oliver is determined.
"I certainly can't be alone in this country," he said. "I wonder how many other people wonder about how much has been brushed under the carpet, and will they ever lift up that carpet to see what's there. I just want the truth."
The truth can shock us and shake us up. But it can also ultimately be healing – if you have the courage to dig for it.