Can it be true? Seventy years after the scourge of Nazism which destroyed the face of Jewish Europe and changed the face of the world, we learn that the descendants of tens of thousands of German Jews who fled the most horrific era in modern history, are now seeking German citizenship. One of the most recent applicants is Rabbi Julia Neuberger, most of whose family on her maternal side and some on her father’s side, died in the Holocaust.
The reason for her decision? Brexit. The anxiety about what the June referendum actually means has led to a 20-fold increase in the number of so called “restored citizenship” applications reported by the German authorities. Under German law, anyone who was persecuted on political, racial or religious grounds under the Nazis can apply for citizenship and it even extends to their descendants, although this latter clause does not apply in Austria. Dame Julia recalls growing up with German au pairs and a refugee mother who spoke German to her parents. Aware that terrible things had happened to the Jews in Germany, she was 10 when her parents told her the full extent of the Holocaust, and a little older when she understood the degree to which her grandfather’s mental health had been permanently affected.
Why then did she want a German passport? Uncomfortable during the making of a film about Wagner for the BBC, the stolpersteine commemorative plaques, laid by a non Jewish sculptor beside the doorsteps of Holocaust victims, began to soften her attitude.Then a biography of her mother from 1933-1947 by Joachim Schlőr of Southampton University, plus her admiration for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-arms policy to Syrian and other refugees, helped her decide to “reclaim one part of my history – my German origins,” she told the Guardian newspaper: “I am a European as well as a proud Briton. I have many intersecting identities – I think it perfectly possible to be a proud Briton – and a grateful one – and to hold a German passport, too.”
Michael Newman, chair of the Association of Jewish Refugees has fielded hundreds of enquiries, adding that the process was “a considerable psychological challenge” for many. Newman admitted the irony of the AJR having been founded partly to aid the naturalisation process for Jewish refugees after the war, adding: “Seventy years on, we find ourselves in the position of assisting people who want to acquire German and Austrian citizenship because of the recent developments in Britain.” Newman himself has registered his own application.
My own mother lost her family, in former Czechoslovakia, to Hitler’s death camps, and refused to set foot in Germany ever again, I feel a strangely emotional vertigo. It’s like sitting in a car whose wheels are going backwards. What is this saying?Does it say that the economic effects of Brexit, about which we remain totally in the dark, are powerful enough to overturn the emotional pain of two generations some of whom still squirm at the mention of a German car, or resent German financial predominance in the EU, who still refuse to play Wagner’s music or eat a slice of Shwarzewaldekirchetorte?
It is true that the generation who survived the Nazis is dwindling. It is also true that some Jews returned to their ancestral European homeland in the years following the war, Israelis included. Is this, in fact, something to do with it? Does the passing of those who survived, whose courage, whose anguish and often whose silence lit a torch in the consciousness of their children mean that survivor guilt is beginning to wane? Because survivor guilt does not just belong to the escaping generation. It belongs to their children, too.
Dame Julia’s decision, she says, “has nothing at all to do with antisemitism but is to do with my origins, my admiration for how today’s Germany has dealt with its past, and my sense of being European as well as British. And so, assuming I am granted a German passport, I shall use it proudly.”
Germany has, indeed, tried to make amends by being first to open its borders to refugees fleeing the turmoil in the Middle East; the metaphor for past guilt is not lost on anyone. Does this say we forgive them? Hardly possible, and in any case the reasons appear to have more to do with hard-headed economics than emotion. But there may be another issue here. Whatever the resurgence of right-wing sentiment may mean in today’s world, perhaps a turning back to the land of Einstein, Goethe, Schubert, Beethoven and yes, even Wagner, might represent, even tactically, a need for a Jewish resurgence in a Europe which should never have destroyed it.