Seventy-nine years, six months, 24 days. That’s the time that passed between my birth as a Jewish baby in Nazi Germany — a noncitizen — and the day just months ago that I, an American, acquired citizenship in a democratic Germany that seemed eager to welcome me as one of its own.
Citizenship had been stripped from my parents and grandparents in 1935, three years before my birth, by one of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws imposed by Adolf Hitler’s regime. Jews were classified as state subjects without the rights of racially “pure” Germans. By late 1938, with neighbors attacked on the streets and others mysteriously disappearing, and with synagogues throughout Germany pillaged and aflame, my parents realized they would have to leave to survive.
They were among the lucky ones: They found us temporary safety in a refugee camp in Rotterdam and were granted a U.S. visa in 1940. All of my grandparents also had emigrated to Holland but were trapped there by the Nazi invasion. All four were ultimately murdered in concentration camps, my mother’s parents at Sobibór and my father’s at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
With that history, it is easy to understand why so many survivors of the Holocaust could bear no renewed contact with Germany and have opted to never again set foot on German soil. But my response was different.
The postwar German government, as far back as the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949, embarked on a path of democratic governance and decency. And the Grundgesetz, or Basic Law, adopted that year contains a specific provision aimed at German Jews and others targeted by the Holocaust. “Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their descendants,” it reads, “shall on application have their citizenship restored.”
In 2005, I made a week-long visit to my “home town” of Hamburg, courtesy of the city government. Hamburg and other major German cities hosted such group trips for former residents uprooted by the Holocaust to show the transformation from the Hitler era and the resurgence of Jewish life they seek to encourage. Besides the more conventional touring, we visited the new Jewish community center-to-be, attended Friday night religious services and, importantly, spoke about the Holocaust to non-Jewish high school students.
Of course, there was an element of public relations involved in the visit, and perhaps a desire by the new generation of Germans to expiate guilt for what their parents and grandparents had done. But doing right, it seems to me, deserves positive recognition regardless of the complicated motivations — and Germany was doing right. I began to consider claiming citizenship under the 1949 law.
I wouldn’t gain much in practical terms. Any benefit would pretty much be limited to the inconsequential — things such as being able to clear customs a bit faster at E.U. airports and easing travel to some countries that require a visa for U.S. citizens. And although my ultimate decision to apply for dual citizenship this past year was influenced by the U.S. election in 2016 (the new president and the intolerant attitudes he seemed to encourage made the clichéd expression “It can’t happen here” just a bit less certain), that factor was secondary.
Far more relevant was my feeling that, by claiming citizenship, I also could reclaim a bit of the humanity that was stolen from my parents and grandparents in the Nazi era.
As I mulled it all over, I reflected on my parents’ experience, and what their attitude might have been. Traumatized by the Nazi murders of their parents and other close family members, the loss of their friends and homes and possessions, they never considered recovering German citizenship. They died before the prospect became appealing to me. But I would like to think that my parents, who had defined themselves in equal measure by their Jewish and German identities, would have understood my decision.
Germany’s welcoming stance toward refugees under Chancellor Angela Merkel enhanced my appreciation further. And I was struck by the irony that the very country my parents and I had to flee almost 80 years ago was now acting in a much more humanitarian fashion than the country that had taken us in.
Meanwhile, the Jewish population of Germany had bounced back to about 200,000, from less than 40,000 five years after the war. Although I am deeply distressed by the revival of anti-Semitism — and now anti-Muslim bias as well — in Germany, throughout Europe and here at home, I am impressed by the stalwart, noisy opposition to that tide by democratic leaders such as Merkel.
So, on May 15 last year, I applied for citizenship under the Basic Law provision. Because of my age, approval came through from Bonn in late August — far short of the year-long wait that I was told is typical. A census report issued by the Federal Statistical Office of Germany in 2016 shows that 638 Americans were naturalized that year.
On Nov. 22, I headed to the German Embassy on Reservoir Road NW in Washington to receive my citizenship certificate and complete a passport application. (I received that German/E.U. passport just last month.) For the citizenship ceremony, my partner, Susan, and I were escorted to a conference room named after Friedrich Wilhelm von Prittwitz und Gaffron, a pre-war German ambassador to the United States who resigned from the diplomatic corps in protest the day after Hitler was appointed chancellor.
Joining us at a table in the middle of the room were a young American-born family who qualified for automatic citizenship by being the grandson and great-grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor. (As my generation ages and dies off, the mix of applicants has shifted increasingly toward our children and grandchildren.)
The potential practical benefits for them were far more dramatic than the ones I was gaining. The children could receive their university education in Germany at no cost, or elsewhere in the European Union for far less than in the United States, and would be eligible to work almost anywhere in the nearly 30 E.U. countries.
The naturalization ceremony conducted for our little group by Holger Scherf, the German consul general in Washington, was simple but profoundly moving. He opened by acknowledging the mixed feelings we surely felt. “It’s not easy for you” to be entering into citizenship in “the country that took your family,” he said. And although the German government sought to “redress in part this injustice that has been done,” he said, it was clear that “this is not about forgive and forget.” Contrasting 21st-century Germany with the Nazi regime of the 1930s and ’40s, Scherf declared, “Today we are a completely different country, a welcoming, diverse country. Today we are an open society.”
Understandably, he cautioned that the memory of the Holocaust must be kept alive. (Holocaust Remembrance Day is April 12.) “Those who don’t remember are in danger of seeing things repeat,” Scherf said. And he quoted the late Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps: “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”
As my choice to take on German citizenship was based on emotional and psychological rather than practical grounds, the ceremony and Scherf’s words made that decision seem right for me.
I remain immensely proud of being an American. And now, as I approach my 80th birthday at the end of the month, I finally can be proud of being a German as well.