The question for the Oppenheims: Should they accept citizenship from Germany, the nation that tried to exterminate them?
Joost Oppenheim, along with thousands of American Jews in the past few years, said yes.
“Did it involve forgiveness?” the Rockville, Md., resident said of his decision to become a dual citizen at age 81. “In a sense, it does. Becoming a German means I can identify, to some extent, with them.”
Although some of the younger members of his family have also sought German citizenship, others aren’t ready to forgive.
Since 1949, Germany has offered citizenship to Jews who fled Germany or were deported to concentration camps from 1933 to 1945, and any of their direct descendants. Until recently, few American Jews were inclined to accept it.
But from 2000 to 2014, the number of Jewish Americans naturalized annually increased more than 16-fold, driven primarily by a younger generation more than 70 years removed from the horrors of the Holocaust.
In 2000, 42 Americans were naturalized under the law. The numbers gradually crept up until 2008 when, coinciding with the financial crisis, 514 Americans were naturalized as German citizens. The embassy thinks, but is unable to prove, that these Americans may have become more interested in a second passport as the economy at home got shakier.
In 2013 and 2014, the most recent years for which the German Embassy could provide statistics, more than 700 Americans were naturalized each year.
The German law excludes most Jews persecuted in the Holocaust, who largely lived in other countries that Germany invaded during World War II. According to a German census, about half a million people in Germany were Jewish in 1933, out of 67 million residents.
More than 200,000 people around the world have been naturalized since 1949 under the law, the German Embassy in Washington said.
Consul General Holger Scherf has witnessed four naturalization ceremonies during the past year, each one welcoming about 10 new citizens.
“For us it’s a very positive thing, that they are wanting to be German citizens,” Scherf said. As the new citizens sit in a conference room named for Friedrich von Prittwitz, a diplomat who quit rather than serve under Hitler, Scherf always asks them why they chose to pursue citizenship.
“The young ones don’t have any negative feelings. For them that’s history; that’s past,” said Scherf, who is not Jewish.
Steven Windmueller, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles who studies Jewish American attitudes, noted that the Holocaust still tops the list when pollsters ask young Jews what defines their Jewish identity.
But although postwar generations boycotted German products for decades — refusing to buy a German car is still so common that comedian Sarah Silverman wrote a profane song about it — millennial young adults have dropped some of those customs.
“I think that the Holocaust remains very powerful, but that’s separate from their looking at Germany in its modern and contemporary form,” Windmueller said. “They’re more open to accepting German products, German citizenship, German culture.”
Although a desire to reclaim family roots also plays a role, these young Jews want the benefits of a second passport — the ability to live and work anywhere in the European Union. By far the most common reason they give for pursuing naturalization, Scherf says, is that they want to pursue higher education in Europe, where a degree is often cheap or even free for citizens.
That is what first got Oppenheim thinking. His 16-year-old granddaughter Ezri White is starting to look ahead to college, and she learned she could study cheaply in Europe, said her mother, Emia Oppenheim. “In a very cavalier manner, she brought the idea to my dad: ‘Hey, you could get this citizenship back.’ ”
Oppenheim’s grandchildren know his story. They have heard him tell their Hebrew school classes how his parents left Germany thinking that they would be safe in Holland, and when the Nazis invaded they had to hand their children to a Catholic couple who raised them under false names. Oppenheim was 8 and his brother was 4. For two years, he lived in terror that his secret would be found out.
Meanwhile, his parents went into hiding. When they were caught, they went to concentration camps. Oppenheim’s mother survived Theresienstadt; his father perished at Auschwitz.
Oppenheim’s grandchildren know what came after the war for him, too: a new home in the United States in 1946; four children and 13 grandchildren; a career for 52 years as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health; friendships with scientists from all over the world, including Germany; an ongoing, decades-long closeness with the Dutch family that saved him.
As he talked to his father in his Potomac, Md., kitchen last week, Oppenheim’s son Monty, 52, said that when Ezri first brought up the idea of becoming a German citizen at 81, “I think you thought she was joking.”
But the more Joost considered it, the more his granddaughter’s idea appealed to him. Becoming a German citizen would reflect his current perspective: The Germans he knows today are cognizant of their history and should not be held responsible for the deeds of their grandfathers.
“I don’t think crimes against humanity are inherited,” he said.
Monty and Emia decided to seek citizenship for themselves and their children, too — Monty’s four and Emia’s three, ranging in age from 2 to 16. The embassy asked for proof of their family background, and was happy to help them dig up the records.
In a family that suddenly includes 10 German citizens across three generations, not everyone bought in.
Matthew Oppenheim, another of Joost’s sons, wanted nothing to do with it. “His willingness to see Germany as something different now from what it was then? I’m not sure I would so easily grant them clemency for what they did,” Matthew, 49, said recently, sitting across the table from his father at a family dinner.
“It took me a long time. It was not easy,” Joost said. Matthew and Monty both say they have seen their father’s struggle and his evolution: For decades, he rarely spoke about his childhood ordeal, and only spoke of Germany with anger.
Matthew said he disagrees with his father and siblings that it is time to accept German citizenship. “What they did in terms of reparations I still find inexcusable. As a lawyer, what they paid to people who had been harmed would not be acceptable in any court of law,” he said. “I still bear a grudge.”
Germany has spent an estimated $100 billion, adjusted for inflation, compensating survivors and their heirs. But more claimants were still fighting in court into the 21st century.
To Matthew, the offer of citizenship seems like a grab for publicity by Germany, at least in part: “They love the fact that they could take a picture with my father and say he’s now a German citizen.”
Monty was ambivalent. “I had some anxiety with this, obtaining a passport, citizenship in Germany,” he said. “There’s this nagging fear in the back of my head. This is not like getting a scuba-diving license.”
He chose citizenship, but he’s still not sure why. “The benefits are pretty minimal,” he said. Yes, his children could study in Europe — but he wouldn’t want them to go that far from home. The best he can come up with is that if they take a family trip abroad, they’ll get cheaper tickets to museums.
Emia, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, sees her new citizenship as symbolic, not just practical. “It was an opportunity as well as justice. It was time. Germany has done so much to repair and remember, that I think it was also recognition of that.”
Edna Friedberg, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said some families such as the Oppenheims find meaning in connecting with their past by pursuing German citizenship.
“New generations don’t want their family legacy to be only about victimization,” Friedberg said.
Many others, though, fear that if Jews move on, the Holocaust will not loom so large in the public consciousness.
That’s what Matthew worries about, now that his father is a German citizen.
“I think all survivors and family of survivors fear the world forgetting what happened. I would hate that this is one step further along the path of forgetting,” Matthew said. “You can view this as a process of healing, or a process of forgetting. That’s in the eyes of the beholder.”
Joost responds: “Inevitably, the younger generation will forget.”
But at the other end of the table, Emia’s 13-year-old son, Kaleb White, hasn’t forgotten. And he intends to ensure that the next generation doesn’t either.
Kaleb became a bar mitzvah this year, and then a German citizen. He said he was glad to be naturalized because he saw it as an honor for his grandfather — but he wouldn’t call himself German.
“As long as there’s still anti-Semitism in the world, then the Holocaust needs to be remembered. People need to know how far it went before,” he said.
Aware of his grandfather’s harrowing past and the opportunities his new passport affords him, Kaleb is focused on the future. He knows why the Holocaust matters: “For my kids, who will be Jewish.”