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This D.C. statehood activist just got full voting rights — in Austria

Bo Shuff in the DC Vote headquarters in Washington on Tuesday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
6 min

Bo Shuff finally got full voting rights — something he’s spent years fighting for as a D.C. statehood advocate.

And he’s a little chagrined about it.

Because the country in which he will finally have a full say is Austria.

Yes, it’s easier for a 49-year-old, opinionated, gay, cake-baking, glass-blowing political consultant, advocate and Washington wonk to get the right to vote in elections across the Atlantic Ocean, in Austria, than it is in the country where he was born, in the place he’s lived most of his life.

“I’ve spent a total of about 96 hours in Austria,” Shuff said, still shaking his head in disbelief and counting out the days — on a school trip to Europe, then in a side trip from Germany to see Salzburg — that he’s spent in his new country. “About five days.”

He was born in Fairfax County, raised in California and moved to the District in 1991. “I’m looking at these citizenship papers I got, all in German,” said Shuff. “And I’m just floored about what happened.”

It’s more than a happy hour, isn’t-that-funny, wonky punchline for Shuff. It’s painful, because Shuff has invested so much of his life, his emotion, his career in the D.C. Statehood movement for nearly a decade as the head of DC Vote, fighting for D.C. residents to get the same voting rights as the rest of Americans.

We can vote for a president and we can vote in local elections, but D.C. residents have no voting member in Congress and no say in the federal legislation that most acutely shapes our lives. Our license plates say “Taxation Without Representation.”

.D.C. statehood is about getting a vote, and more.

And yet Shuff found all of that with the quick filing of paperwork and submission of some family records to become a citizen of Austria in less than a year.

“It came with a discovery in our family history,” Shuff said.

His grandfather, Otto Elmer, was actually Otto Epstein. He was an Austrian Jew who left Vienna with his two brothers in 1938, escaping the Holocaust and leaving behind everything the Epstein family had built.

“We never knew we were Jewish,” Shuff said. His grandfather was even a leader in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Akron, Ohio. “As far as I knew, we’re all Christian. I mean, not like a practicing Christian, but you know.”

Epstein was one of about 192,000 Jews living in Austria when the country was anschlussed by Nazi Germany in 1938, according to a U.S. State Department report. At 20, he also became one of the 117,000 who fled. The brothers sold their family home and business for the exact price of an exit visa.

Epstein made it to Uruguay and worked his way to New York City in 1941. He became Otto Elmer.

The family always talked about Elmer’s amazing football scholarship that got him through college, Shuff said.

“And then we were finally, like, football? How could he know what football even was?” said Shuff, whose middle name is Otto. There was more to his story.

Elmer — who lived a quiet, though remarkable life in Ohio as a notable organic chemist who held 27 patents — wasn’t a football player. The U.S. Army recruited him out of college in Ohio to translate German documents during the war and sent him to Aberdeen, Md.

He was one of thousands of German-speaking Jews who helped interrogate prisoners of war, interpret and translate documents. Their discoveries helped catapult fields of American science. There were plenty of them working right here in Fort Hunt near Alexandria, which was like the Guantánamo Bay of World War II (without the torture.)

A covert chapter opens as Fort Hunt veterans speak.

After his death in 2001, the family story tumbled out of one of the remaining uncles, who told them all about their Jewish heritage and what the men went through to save themselves from becoming one of the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

And with that, Shuff joined thousands of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who learned the truth about the way such horrors from the not-so-distant past reshaped their trajectories, their stories, their lives, their names.

It was the murmur of that horror reawakening in 2018 that ultimately started the move that put the Austrian passport in Shuff’s hands.

Nationalism began to unfurl in Austria in 2018, the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, with the election of populist, far-right Freedom Party (FPO) members, a party founded by former Nazis in the 1950s.

At the same time, cases were rising in Austria that involved “racism, antisemitism and Nazi revival: They advocate the reopening of the concentration camp Mauthausen, employ Nazi language such as “Jew pigs,” and harass children with the “wrong” lineage,” said a publication by the Mauthausen Committee, which represents survivors of Mauthausen in Austria.

President Alexander Van der Bellen replied: “I will work to ensure for the duration of my tenure that destructive nationalism, xenophobia, right-wing extremism and antisemitism have no place in Austria,” according to Reuters.

And so began an effort — a bill passed in 2019 — to return Austrian citizenship as a form of reparation to those forced to flee the Holocaust, their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Shuff’s mom gathered the descendants of those Epstein brothers, they tracked down the paperwork tracing their lineage and they all submitted requests to become Austrian citizens in 2021. About 28,000 people have worldwide as of March, according to the Austrian Embassy.

Shuff got his in the mail and marveled at it and what it will mean for him.

He’s going to Austria this summer, to trace this new history of his family and learn about this country. Maybe he’ll work in Austrian politics someday. He plans on voting in its next election — in 2024.

That ex-Nazi-founded party that was booted out of office just had an astounding showing in regional elections last month.

“Some of it is to help the opposition to some of that rising nationalism,” Shuff said. “We have a voice against that.”

And some of it is because he just wants to know how it feels to have a full vote.

This column has been updated with information from the Austrian Embassy.