Life & Culture

How I connected with my inner German self

When Gaby Koppel decided to reclaim her Berlin-born father’s nationality, being handed a passport alone didn’t quite pass muster...


The day I was handed my German passport was one I’ll remember for ever, like the births of my children and my first newspaper byline. And yet it wasn’t the paradigm shift I’d expected. Somewhere deep in my unconscious I’d anticipated my new nationality would leave me feeling more European, more effortlessly cosmopolitan, more multilingual. But no.

Like hundreds of other British Jews, after Brexit closed so many doors, I applied to have my nationality “restored”. It had been snatched from my father when he fled Berlin as a teenager in the late 1930s, and claiming dual citizenship for me and my children as his descendants was initially for the convenience to enjoy the freedom to travel and work, it also felt like honouring his memory.

But eight months in, I’m just not feeling it. I realise that these things take time and effort, so resolve to try some German experiences, communing with the spirit of my late dad who remained steadfastly Deutsch in pretty much all his tastes and attitudes while also being profoundly Jewish.

First off, I order a dirndl online. During childhood holidays, my parents would dress me like a proper mädchen and the idea of putting on this national costume once more feels like it could be an easy short-cut to the identity I crave. When it arrives, the dress consists of the regulation three parts – white under-blouse, frock and apron. But its label, “Scarlet Darkness”, should have been a clue – it is a cheap fancy dress costume aimed at the burgeoning Oktoberfest market. And as my countrywomen soon point out to me, dirndls are only worn in Bavaria and Austria, no self-respecting Berliner would be seen kitted out like this. It has to go back

The quickest way to a nation’s heart is through its stomach so seeking a taste of the Vaterland, I make my way to one of London’s few authentic German restaurants, Stein’s Berlin Café in South Kensington. It’s the kind of place my parents would have loved, with a full-on Mittel European vibe. Unlike many Jewish refugees, despite their wartime traumas, my parents remained devoted to German food and culture. The menu at Stein’s consists of typical Bavarian dishes, which are hugely resonant of my Hungarian mother’s home cooking – hefty sausages and pork jägerschnitzel. As I no longer eat non-kosher meat, I opt for the vegane bratwurst mit sauerkraut, which is fitting as Germany today has more vegetarians than any other European country, and my side order of curry sauce is a nod to currywurst, the iconic street food. The sausage is yummy and despite the novel curry flavour, generates quite a Proustian moment. And a tear.

About 60,000 Germans live in London. The hub of the community is in Richmond, where there is a German school with nearly 900 pupils. Bele Weiss sent both her children there. A software executive who moved to Britain in 1994, ten years later she pivoted jobs to establish with her architect husband Reinhard, the first Stein’s restaurant in Richmond.

She advises me that Germans are still more formal and hierarchical at work than Brits, and far more insistent on citing their academic qualifications, which are more likely to relate to their professions. My engineer father would have been “Herr Doctor Ingenieur”.

Laughing, she describes an email that was distributed around a company she used to work for, instructing staff that it was now acceptable to address colleagues on first-name terms, though the formal second person pronoun “Sie” meaning “you” should be retained. 

As I have a degree in English literature and a master’s in creative writing, I feel well aligned to the national stereotype, but I’m freelance, which means I have no colleagues as such. As a compromise I resolve to address my husband more formally from now on.

Though neither Bele nor Reinhard trained in restaurant management and the early years of Steins were marked by trial and error – with Brexit bringing further potential disaster – the three restaurants now seem to be a very British success story.

While in the Richmond area, I pop down to Hansel & Pretzel, a bustling German deli. Owner Petra Braun says she never got the same “Oh wow!” reaction to the bathrooms she used to design as she does when delighted German expats discover her shelves heaving with wurst, apple sauce and pretzels.

Petra agrees that Germans in London are “obsessed” with bread. Even the recent vogue for sourdough doesn’t quite match their precise tastes, and as I was brought up by people who dismissed the products of our local bakery as “cottonwool”, I’m onside with this and stock up on a good solid loaf with a crispy crust, plus some pumpernickel and a slice of apfelkuchen for good measure.

Even a Deutsche frau can’t live by bread alone, so I pop into the Goethe Institute, the cultural wing of the German government, near the Science Museum. I attend a discussion about the Kindertransport, and the following week return for the launch of the English translation of a novel called Sisters in Arms. Author Shida Bazyar is a second-generation Iranian immigrant to Germany, the themes of her book include racism and the rise of the far-right. Overall, I gain the impression of a country still coming to terms with its Nazi past while also facing up to the contemporary challenges of diversity and resurgent extremism. Oddly enough, this view of a multicultural country feels a far cry from the clichéd national stereotypes and, as a German of Jewish ethnicity, I feel these could be my struggles too.

My difficulty in comprehending the German language part of the discussion is a salutary reminder that despite having been brought up in a bilingual household, my command of the Muttersprache has always been poor.

Feeling that language is key to national identity, I go to meet associate university lecturer Ingrid, travelling there by Lime Bike as around 75 per cent of my compatriots are regular cyclists. I am intrigued by Ingrid’s story. A native Austrian educated in Germany, she is a convert from Catholicism to Judaism. It was books by Jewish writers such as Nicole Krauss that initially sparked her interest in the faith, and later she was attracted by the focus on ritual and family, but spent years worrying about the ethics of someone of her nationality wanting to be Jewish. 

I’ve put off the moment when I have to express myself in German, but Ingrid gently encourages me to tell her about my gap-year stay in Berlin. As the words start to come more easily, something really magical happens for me. There’s something about the feel of the sentences in my mouth and the electric connection between different areas of my brain needed to compose sentences that digs into a deeper emotional wellspring and makes me feel a much more instinctive connection with my German-ness. Yes, I’m finally feeling it. But this is a journey I am only just beginning.;;

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