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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The German Jewish Citizenship Experience
I'M NOT ONE to go in for New Year's resolutions, but in January 2016 I resolved that it was time to start working on a book. Not a book completely of my own. A collection of stories written by others, German Jews who had reclaimed their German citizenship as I had. Another project, another challenge — "I can do this," I told myself. I'd been thinking about this book project for a while and the timing seemed right.
My family was coming up on five years of living in Berlin and feeling more and more at home here. I'd been blogging about our experiences as "a German American Jewish family in Berlin" during all that time and was ready to shift away from telling my own story of return. I wanted to gather a set of stories that documented the personal significance of restored citizenship and reach a wider audience.
But how would I go about my new undertaking? The individual parts of the book project seemed doable; the challenge was how to manage and complete all the various parts in a reasonable amount of time: finding contributors, getting them to write the stories, offering editorial guidance, researching the German law on restored citizenship, collecting data on naturalization cases, and finding a project sponsor and a publisher. Shortly after launching the project, my work life became a lot busier when I was offered a full- time position with an American study abroad organization. Suddenly, although I was living in Berlin, a city known for its relaxed and low-key lifestyle, all my free time disappeared!
I became electronically engaged with an amorphous group of German Jews that waxed and waned over time. For the first year it seemed that I was constantly adding new people and scratching others off my list of contributors, constantly explaining the purpose of the book to potential collaborators. Some of the people who joined the project in its earliest stages are a part of this final collection. Many others succumbed to writer's block, didn't respond to editorial guidance, or had great stories to share that didn't fit with the book's theme.
I'm grateful beyond words to the eleven contributors who were willing to place their trust in me and share their stories for publication. They have helped document the history of a post-Holocaust Jewish return to Germany. Whether they physically moved here as I did, like Maya and Yermi, became regular visitors like Carole and Nancy, deepened their professional connections like Pippa and Peter, or embarked on a more inward journey of return like Sally and Ruth, these individuals took a step forward to reconcile their relationship with the country that persecuted their families.
Much of the attention paid to Holocaust reconciliation focuses on how the perpetrators' crimes are being addressed, on how Germany's government, schools, and citizens are ensuring the atrocities of the past will not be repeated. From the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of Berlin to documentations of Jewish life before the Holocaust found in many museums and public displays, Germany has demonstrated a commitment to "never forget." The media runs regular news items about governmental and community remembrance projects such as the Stolpersteine (brass stumbling stones) that are placed in the pavement to honor Holocaust victims. Though some interest groups now argue "Enough already!" this preoccupation with the past remains an important focus of present-day German society.
Examining reconciliation from the survivor and descendant perspective is more challenging. This book aims to explore how restored citizenship has played a small role in helping us move forward from a traumatic past. The contributing authors address how and why they reclaimed the citizenship that was stripped from their families and what it means to have it restored. Their personal accounts help us understand how claiming the right to once again become a full member of German society is a powerful form of restorative justice for the families that were persecuted.
With ongoing political turbulence in the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, and elsewhere, people with German Jewish origins around the world will continue to consider the benefits of obtaining German citizenship. Perhaps some will even be inspired by the following twelve chapters to embark on their own journey of return.
The final chapter, "Revoked and Restored: Facts and Figures," includes background information on the law that provides for restored citizenship and data on naturalization approvals from 2000 to 2017.
A number of supporters helped bring this project to fruition. I received financial support, and more importantly, a morale boost from the Stiftung Zurückgeben after a challenging first year of getting the project underway. As a recipient of one of their 2017 grant awards for Jewish women artists and writers living in Germany, I was able to move forward more confidently with the project. I'm extremely grateful to this wonderful organization that seeks to promote a diverse Jewish community in Germany.
I would like to especially thank Agnieszka Pufelska and Sharon Adler for their continuous support over the past three years. Dena Romero generously offered editorial assistance with a number of the stories, including mine, Ruth's and Maya's. Jannis Panagiotidis, Esther Weizsäcker, and officials from Germany's Federal Office of Administration provided helpful assistance for the background chapter. Thanks also to Bruce Black who encouraged me to keep writing, and to Eva C. Schweitzer for her guidance and willingness to publish this collection.
Most importantly, I received an unending amount of loving support from my family. Avery and Sam, my two sons, and my sister Andie helped keep my spirits up at many difficult junctures. My daughter Olivia, born to be a gifted writer, made many helpful editorial suggestions for my story and was a good listener and companion when I needed her. Brian, my husband of twenty-two years, also gave editorial advice, stuck by my side through the entire project, and willingly left our apartment without complaint on many weekends so that I could be left alone to work in peace. I'm now looking forward to enjoying more time with my family and a little more free time in Berlin.
Berlin, Germany July 2018CHAPTER 2
The Lost German
Maya Ergas Shwayder
April 16, 2013, New York, NY, USA IT WAS TOO early in the morning to have to show anyone my ID. There was no way the person in the passport photo remotely resembled the bedraggled 8 am version of myself that I had strapped together with a hair tie and shoved into a sundress.
But I submitted to the metal detector and pushed the proof of my U.S. citizenship through the glass hole in the window. The German on the correct side of the window made sure I wasn't a terrorist. "And you are here for what this morning," he intoned rather than asked.
"Um ... the swearing in ceremony?" Every time I opened my mouth around a European I cursed my nasally American accent.
"Yes thank you take the elevators over there," he again stated with no commas, and pointed as best he could through the two dimensions of glass toward an unseen third point. The elevator doors slid open on the top floor of the German Consulate in New York, and I followed the low hum of pre-coffee voices into a glaring room made of windows. The view of the golden East River and the UN Building as the sun began to yawn and stretch itself over the city almost made living in Manhattan worth it in that moment. A few dozen other obvious-Jews and their loved ones hovered over the muffins-and-orange-juice-and-coffee table, vacuuming up its offerings. You can always tell when it's a Jewish event by how violently the food is attacked. "Hey, Maya!" a too-awake voice called from across the small room (so, like, five feet away).
I blinked away the miasma of bleariness. "Oh hey Adam," spilled out of my mouth. Adam was a friend of my boyfriend at the time. A sympathetic figure in and of himself, but given that I didn't like my boyfriend very much, I was not incredibly inclined to socialize with him. I had been vaguely aware he was pursuing this same course of action I was, he had sent me a message a month or so before that read "Hey guess what! Ich bin ein Berliner!" that I had studiously ignored. The idea that we would be sharing this somewhat fraught and important moment in our lives had not occurred to me. This was not a welcome coincidence. My furtive turn of a shoulder toward grabbing another muffin would have been more graceful if I hadn't already been holding two muffins in my hands. Either way the non-verbal request to disengage socially was not received.
"This is cool, right?" Adam gushed, a thick paper cup of coffee clutched near his chest. "It's so cool that you're here too!" A woman lumbered up beside him.
"Yeah, it's super interesting," I echoed, mouth full of muffin, not really sure what I was saying. I looked at the other person.
"Oh Maya, this is my sister," Adam exclaimed. The requisite handshake happened. She didn't look that much like him.
"So are you both getting citizenship?" I asked.
"No," Sister cut Adam off.
"Oh," I ventured. "Uh ... no interest?"
"Yeah I just don't feel the need for another passport," she blundered through the sentence. "Like, what benefit does it have? Also our family fled Germany so, like, why go back?" Both Adam and I looked like we were about to launch into our widely-performed and critically acclaimed lecture entitled "The Advantages of Having Two Citizenships in this Day and Age," a theatric and academic feature that all Jews going through the process of reclaiming German citizenship must, for the sake of survival at major family dinners, develop and adapt for the benefit of confused and alarmed older members of the tribe who still see Germany as A Very Bad Place.
Before we could declaim the opening monologue, however, a young woman with another distinguished pan- European accent cleared her throat. The amoeba of people around the comestibles rotated, mouths still full, toward her. She extracted a sheet of paper from a folder and began to read. Behind her, another stack of folders lay waiting next to a gaggle of German consulate employees. One of them had my name on it. "We welcome you all to the German Consulate in New York this morning," she began. "And we welcome you all as new German citizens!" She paused for a polite round of applause, then turned her head back down to the paper she was holding. "Through this process you are helping to rectify a great wrong that never should have happened."
The other people around me nodded along with the aide's prepared speech. I stood, mouth full of muffin, trying to stay numb to what was happening and ignore a welling feeling in my chest. Those last eight words stuck to my brain like gum on a sidewalk. When Distinguished European Accent concluded, we stepped up one by one to sign a document confirming that we had been conferred German citizenship and claim our naturalization certificates.
"Maya ..." Distinguished European paused and performed the obligatory brow-furrow over the pronunciation of my last name. "Shhh-whyter." She got it wrong.
"Hey can you take a picture?" I asked Adam, dropping my phone into his hands without waiting for a response. I stepped up to the bedecked cocktail table in the center of the room, shook Distinguished European Accent's hand, smiled for the camera, and with the stroke of a pen on a piece of paper I couldn't read, I became German. After the inhalation of a few more muffins and some light talk with Adam and Sister over vague plans to one day put my new EU citizenship to use ("Oh sure, I mean, Berlin sounds wonderful. But honestly I'd really like to go to London!"), and lying about my desire to learn German to a few consulate staff members ("Yeah I took German in college but I've forgotten so much but I'd really like to pick it up again can you recommend any classes?"), I exited, clutching the folder (and another muffin. Because free food.).
The certificate contained within represented a new connection to my past, my heritage, my ancestors, and my grandparents. A connection they may not have wanted. The elevator glided from the exalted heights of being a newly- crowned German down to the ordinary street levels of being a New Yorker, back into the city to which my grandfather arrived at age eighteen with the help of a paper marriage, knowing no one and speaking no English, his family exterminated and death nipping at his own heels.
When asked later by friends why I did it, this time I could not only fall back on my lecture "The Advantages of Having Two Citizenships in this Day and Age," but was also able to spout forth a bevy of somewhat sexier explanations:
"One day I might move to [exotic European city]!"
"I can travel places Americans can't go!" (Two years later the U.S. would begin re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, rendering this talking point worthless.)
"I just really love sausages."
"And beer. I mean, you've had German beer right?"
[Ed. Note: German beer is overrated. More on this later]
"You know it's really in tribute to my grandparents and the struggles they went through."
"Well it's kind of just in case, you know, something ever happens in America." (That last one was always met with peals of ironic laughter. "Something happen?" they would cry. "In America?? Like in Germany?? Come on, we would never be so stupid as to elect a racist nationalistic demagogue who scapegoats one ethnicity and plays on peoples' inherent xenophobia, forcing a rise to power on the backs of their economic and social insecurities that's been coupled by years of economic downturn and stagnation! Don't be silly!") (Ok they wouldn't say it exactly like that.) But beyond all the glib and witty rationalizations, coupled with my new-found confidence that comes with now being the holder of two sexy and powerful passports, a stark and uncomfortable truth reared its head: here I was, living in New York, a society that accepts everyone as long as they're wearing the right shoes; a place that welcomed thousands of people fleeing persecution for hundreds of years. And I was blithely holding a fresh piece of paper declaring that I was once again part of the society that had been and had done the exact opposite. Grandma, we were certain, would not have liked this. And Grandpa, we knew, was at best ambiguous about it.
Back in 2009, my oldest brother Aaron was visiting Grandpa out in his home in Laguna Niguel, California. Aaron had been doing a bit of research about this thing called Article 116 of the German Basic Law. Knowing the weight such a familial decision would carry with the older generations, he decided to casually approach Grandpa about how Grandpa would feel if we all got German citizenship. I say "casually" in the way that Bugs Bunny would saunter up to Elmer Fudd, hands in his pockets, whistling a tune, trying to distract Elmer from blasting him with a shotgun. During Aaron's trip, Grandpa ended up in the hospital (not Aaron's fault, I've been assured). And it was about a day before Aaron was scheduled to fly home.
Nevertheless, Aaron, hands in pockets, whistling a tune, sauntered up to Grandpa's hospital bedside. "Grandpa, what would you think of us getting EU citizenship?" Aaron asked. It took Grandpa about point-three seconds to see through that one. "What? EU citizenship? That doesn't exist. What are you talking about?" he asked. Aaron hummed and hawed for a bit, trying to dance around the dirty "German" word. He, however, was the only one of the family at this point who had done the research on Article 116. "Well, see there's this thing we can do. In Germany, if we have anyone in our family who was German and then was stripped of their citizenship, we can reclaim it," Aaron explained.
"Reclaim? German? Why would you want to be German?" Grandpa asked. Aaron launched into his prototype of "The Advantages of Having Two Citizenships in this Day and Age" lecture, one that we would all adopt and adapt sooner or later. Grandpa listened. He was silent. Aaron waited. It wasn't like the fate of this familial decision hung in the balance or anything. It was more like we didn't want the specter of our ancestors haunting us through the rest of our lives for dishonoring them.
"Would you have to give up your American citizenship?" Grandpa queried.
"No," Aaron exhaled. "No we would have both."
"Oh, well then, ok," and Grandpa sank into a glum silence. A few months later, Grandpa passed away in his beloved California.
At the end of 2012, Aaron sent around an email to our family with a picture of him, unsmiling, holding a piece of paper that declared him a naturalized German citizen. "Guten TAAAAAAAAAAAAAG!" the email read.
"The circle of life? Mixed feelings. ... but use it for good purposes!" my mother responded. Four years later, down in the tunnels under New York, rattling around in a tin can of a subway car on my way to a terrible job that I hated, the words of the Distinguished European Accent still reverberated with me, taking on a music of their own, deepening in complexity the longer I listened. "to rectify a great wrong that never should have happened."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Place They Called Home"
Copyright © 2019 Berlinica Publishing LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Berlinica Publishing LLC.
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Table of Contents
Donna Swarthout The German Jewish Citizenship Experience,
Maya Ergas Shwayder The Lost German,
Ruth White A Passport to My Heart,
Rabbi Kevin Hale The Wandsbeker Fahrradbote,
Pippa Goldschmidt A Random Walk Between Germany and Scotland,
Dena Rueb Romero Germany: A Love Affair,
Carole Fabian Football, Films, and Fate,
Sally Hess Muttersprache, Vaterland,
Peter B. Meyer Restitution at Last!,
Nancy R. Krisch It's My Berlin Too!,
Sylvia Finzi Where Is My Homeland? A Story of Indecision,
Yermi Brenner My Grandma, The Holocaust "Celebrity",
Donna Swarthout The Choice to Return,
Donna Swarthout Revoked and Restored: Facts and Figures,