Extreme Elements All Around

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When I’m feeling especially glum about the current state of political affairs, I idly wonder whether the portents of danger are greater in the U.S. or Germany. Which provokes more fear: the rise of Trump and Cruz in the U.S. or the rise of the far right Alternative for Germany which now has seats in half of Germany’s state parliaments? Compounding my sense of gloom is the threat of terrorism that looms over both countries.

ARDsurveyI scan the news for reassurance, looking for facts that will allay my fears. The AfD’s overall support in Germany, according to a new poll, is at 14%, one point higher than for the Greens. That’s bad news, but the combined support for Germany’s two main parties, Merkel’s CDU and the SPD, is 55%. Merkel herself maintains a 54% approval rating according to last month’s survey by the ARD broadcasting network, not bad for a leader who has been under siege for opening Germany’s doors to refugees.

I googled Donald Trump’s approval rating and was surprised to learn that, according to both Gallup and HuffPost, it’s about 30%. That doesn’t seem very high for a candidate who’s mopping up Republican primary votes across the U.S. But how many people are actually voting in the presidential primaries? Here are some astonishing statistics from the Pew Research Center:

Through the first 12 primaries of 2016, combined Republican turnout has been 17.3% of eligible voters – the highest of any year since at least 1980. Democratic turnout so far is 11.7% – the highest since 1992, with the notable exception of the extraordinarily high turnout in 2008.

My confidence in American democracy had been waning for years before we moved to Germany. Partisanship, ignorance, apathy….it was all so depressing. Germany has serious political problems to contend with, but Germans have much higher voter turnout than Americans and by most accounts they are better informed.

“I could sit on the ground and weep. I’d forgotten what is was like to be in a country where people read,” says Thomas Geoghegan in Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? I highly recommend Geoghegan’s book to anyone exasperated with quality of life issues in America. His persuasive and entertaining work makes a solid case for European social democracy, especially the German model.

There are some disturbing political trends in Germany right now, but I hope the higher levels of political engagement and participation here will prevent extremists from making further gains. Now that fewer refugees are arriving and relief workers have more time to manage the situation, there is reason to hope.

On Finding German Jews for Book Project

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A lot has happened since I first posted about my Restored German Citizenship book project. I’ve cast about in different parts of the world-wide web — joining a number of Facebook and genealogy groups — and managed to capture a few people’s attention. Through countless hours of online searches I discovered quite a few Yekke groups around the world. It was especially helpful to join GerSIG, the German Jewish Special Interest Group that is part of JewishGen.org.

My cyber searches yielded many new contacts, but they also seem to have resulted in a deluge of Spam messages from Jewish dating services. I’m not looking for a JDate, just people of German Jewish descent who have reclaimed their citizenship and want to share their personal stories with me.

So here’s the book update:

  • More than a dozen people in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Germany have expressed interest in making a submission for the book.
  • I’ve already received two wonderful draft submissions.
  • While fishing around online for potential contributors, I applied to join the Times of Israel blogging community. Here’s my first post: What Does Your Reisepass Mean To You?
  • I met with the Research Director for the Leo Baeck Institute, a primary research center for the history of German-speaking Jews. He liked the idea for the book and gave me a few good research tips.
  • I’ve received kind offers of help, suggestions for publishers, and expressions of support from many Full Circle readers. Thank you!

In the coming months I’ll do more outreach to potential contributors, especially in Israel, South America, and the UK. I’ll also send some feelers out to publishers and continue with research on the last 65 years worth of Article 116 citizenship applications. I’ll post occasional updates here and look forward to receiving your advice and support.

Book Project on Restored German Citizenship

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imagesIt’s time to move on. I’ve told my German American Jewish story on this blog and in various publications over the last five years and reached a very broad audience. Now I plan to put together a compilation of stories of people who have reclaimed their citizenship under Article 116 of Germany’s Basic Law.

I believe our German citizenship stories are an important part of post-Holocaust history. These stories occasionally appear in the press, but there has been little comprehensive treatment of this topic since members of families that were persecuted by the Nazis began applying for restored citizenship after WWII. Reclaiming our citizenship is a part of reconciliation, helping us come to terms with the past, and live more fully in the present. It’s something positive to seize hold of, keeping us from being “stuck in time” even when we find it painful to revisit our family history. Our stories also have relevance for new generations of refugees and displaced persons.

If you have reclaimed your citizenship or are going through the process, please consider contributing your story to this book project. Submissions from South America, Israel, South Africa, the U.K., the U.S. and other parts of the diaspora are welcome. I’m also interested in including stories of those whose applications were rejected because only their mother was Jewish or due to other quirks in the German law. I’ve put together a list of German Citizenship Book Project Questions to help you think about and organize your story. Click on the link to download the list and you can start writing!

I do not yet have a publisher for this book but I will work hard to find one. If you have suggestions, advice, ideas, or questions, please post a comment or contact me at dswartho@aol.com. Please also share this post with any individuals or organizations who may be interested in this project.

My Chanukah Lights

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eightThe menorah sparkled a little brighter this year, either to give more hope for a brighter future or because I bought longer, fancier candles. Drawing us close together, the lights remind me of the many ways my family lit up my life throughout the year. But the flames also beckon us to help light the way for others, as Berlin’s thousands of volunteers are doing through their refugee relief efforts. I borrowed former President Bush’s term “points of light” to describe these volunteers in my recent article, The Women’s Room, for the Jewish Women’s Archive.

wackyHappy Chanukah and thanks to my kids for being such incredibly wacky, funny, and bright lights in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for 2016, the year our first-born child will leave home for college. But I have no doubt that he and his siblings will make the world a brighter place wherever they may go.

The Face of Germany’s Far Right

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petryWhat kind of mother kisses her kids goodbye and goes off to whip the masses into a xenophobic frenzy of opposition to Germany’s refugee policy? That was the question I pondered after reading the latest news stories about weekend clashes in Berlin between asylum activists and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

At the helm of the AfD is Frauke Petry, a 41-year-old mother of four with a background as a chemist and businesswoman. I didn’t expect a key leader of Germany’s anti-migrant zealots to be a relatively young and attractive woman. She’s been compared to France’s Marine Le Pen and accused of appearing entirely reasonable while supporting the xenophobic far right. This is the face of right-wing extremism in Germany.

I guess the fact that she’s a mom pushed my buttons. I don’t suspect we’ll find her kids doing volunteer work at any refugee shelters or standing around any train stations with “Refugees Welcome” signs. Nor do I suspect that Petry talks to her kids about the moral implications of the refugee crisis or the studies which show that EU countries have the capacity to welcome a vastly larger share of refugees than they have been doing so far. Instead, she calls for stronger ties to Russia and more children for German families, hoping to inspire a new generation of German mothers who follow the AfD’s politics of hate.

The AfD began as an anti-Euro party that pushed for a “Grexit” from the euro. Now that the AfD has staked out a position on the far right as Germany’s anti-immigrant party, let’s hope it will soon make its own exit from Europe.

“We will manage,” says Merkel

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Signs of a refugee crisis are not readily apparent to an ordinary resident of Berlin. Traversing the city each day I hear the same mix of Russian, Turkish, English, German and Arabic that I’m used to hearing in this city that is Germany’s closest approximation to a melting pot. But the media reports that Germany is expected to receive more than one million asylum seekers this year and that fights are breaking out in Berlin’s central refugee registration center. Angela Merkel has assured the public that “we will manage”,  but opinion polls tell us that many Germans are not convinced.

Fehrbelliner_Platz_4_Berlin-WilmersdorfI didn’t know whether to expect chaos or calm before my first volunteer shift at the refugee center in Rathaus Wilmersdorf this week. On earlier trips past the building I’d seen few signs of the hundreds of refugees given temporary shelter there. It seemed like one of Berlin’s many historical twists of fate that someone who fled Syria or Afghanistan would survive the trip to Germany and end up in a municipal office building that was a vestige of the Nazi era.

The four hours I spent inside the building confirmed everything I’ve read about why refugees have made Germany their first choice destination. More than 800 people are living in a clean and well-organized environment where they have access to medical care, regular meals, and vast supplies of clothing and other essentials. Abundant volunteers help out in all areas of the building and provide translation services in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. Berliners bring a steady stream of supplies to the donation drop-off point. My very limited exposure to Berlin’s refugee relief measures reassured me that the German traits of efficiency and hard work are in ample evidence (from Germans and non-Germans alike).

20151007_153834My tiny part in this mammoth relief effort took place in a glass enclosed Info-Point plastered with all kinds of brochures and flyers. Almost every resident who came to my window asked me for a SIM card or phone so they could call family members they’d left behind. It was hard to look them in the eye and say that I only had information, train tickets, and bottled water to distribute. I didn’t feel very useful, but I managed to answer some questions and help with a variety of small tasks. I also had a great vantage point for watching the little kids race around the hallways and the inner courtyard on mini bikes and scooters. Although no photography is allowed, I snapped a quick shot of Berlin’s newest transit brochure, one in which the German language is noticeably absent. I believe if we all try to help a little, “we will manage.”

Cruising into the New Year

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IMAG0663Our sweet beginning to the Jewish New Year came in the form of a nice set of wheels to cruise around Berlin on a Sunday afternoon. Berlin may have one of the best transit systems in the world, but that doesn’t mean my feet are happy at the end of a long day. I’m married to a man who doesn’t like cars, but he took pity on me with another birthday coming up and registered for DriveNow, one of Berlin’s carsharing services.

We picked up our Mini Cooper Countryman in Wilmersdorf after stopping at the Fehrbelliner Platz refugee center to make a donation of much needed train tickets. The atmosphere outside the shelter was calm and peaceful, giving no hint of the desperate hunt underway in Berlin and other cities to find more space to shelter the thousands of asylum seekers entering Germany. We support using the former Tempelhof airport as a temporary shelter. The facility has space for a few thousand people and would become one of Europe’s biggest refugee shelters if approved. It seems fitting for the site that was the staging ground for the Berlin airlift during the Cold War to once again become a locus of emergency relief.

Driving away from the refugee center and north towards Mitte to check out one of the city’s popular third wave coffee joints, I felt the most like a Berliner that I’ve ever felt. We are privileged to live and raise our children in this city at a time when Germany is opening its arms to people who have been forced to flee their homelands. As established Jewish residents of Berlin whose families were refugees in another era, we can offer help and understanding to asylum seekers who do not yet feel at home here. Germany may never be their Heimat, a term that has a much deeper meaning than “home”, but it offers the hope of a new beginning.

yaaasgarnetAt 31 cents a minute, I’m not sure how much driving we’ll be doing in the coming year, but fortunately there are many great ways to cruise around Berlin. While we’re on the move we hope to make small, ongoing contributions to help alleviate the refugee crisis. It’s easy to find ways that you can help out online. Shana Tova!

Digital artwork by Olivia Maude Swarthout

Obedience Exhibit at the JMB

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Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)A disturbingly alluring devil, a ram that may intuit its imminent slaughter, and dancers entangled in a web of trust and rebellion are all elements of the Obedience (Gehorsam) exhibit at the Jewish Museum Berlin. The visitor is greeted by a seemingly endless Brady Bunch array of children who tell us that they are Isaac…or that they are Ishmael. Once you tear yourself away from the children, you embark on a journey through a series of rooms that dramatize the biblical story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. There’s still time to see this provocative exhibit before it closes on September 13th.

Your response to the multitude of sensations that await you in this 15-room display will probably depend on whatever issues of sacrifice, obedience and trust you face in your own life. As a secular Jew, my willingness to make sacrifices for my children comes before obedience to any higher authority. But have I made the right sacrifices, expected obedience at the right times for valid reasons, and earned the trust of my children? I wish I had an answer key because the first of our three children is just a year away from leaving the nest for college. How strong are the family bonds that have been woven over the past seventeen years and will they remain intact and even grow stronger when our children become adults?

The Obedience exhibit reminds us of the ways that we overlook and sacrifice children in modern times. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac has parallels in contemporary commands to fight wars, dominate people, and devote ourselves to causes that harm others. You may have a different take-away from this expansive multi-media installation, but it’s likely you will find the experience as stimulating as I did.

One Semester, Two Journeys

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They came from France, Hungary, Israel, Poland, Turkey, Australia, The Netherlands, Germany, and even a few from the U.S. Though internationally diverse, they were not so different from the college kids who came through my seminar and lecture courses at Montana State University. They engaged with me in a “community of learners” even while I was still learning the ABCs of my new role as a German university instructor.

Statue_HTWInside the classroom I was back in a comfortable and familiar role, but the outside environment was quite different. Instead of trudging through the snow to meet my students on the MSU Bobcat campus, I rode the S-bahn and tram out to Oberschöneweide for my weekly three-hour Business Communications course at the Hochschule für Technik and Wirtschaft. The HTW campus sits on the site of a former cable factory in the middle of one of Berlin’s oldest industrial districts. The area was a major economic center under the former communist GDR, but fell on hard times after the wall came down. Located right on the river Spree, this revitalized industrial setting offers the campus community a sandy beach and terrace complete with refreshments and plenty of space to study or socialize. I’ll be back there next semester.

hausvogteiOn Mondays I travelled to Hausvogteiplatz in Mitte for my weekly seminar on Jewish migration to Germany at Humboldt University. Developed and taught with Dr. Agnieszka Pufelska, a colleague and friend from the University of Potsdam, this course allowed me to compile and share what I have learned (and am still learning) about the Jewish experience in Germany. Our international group of students journeyed with us through turbulent chapters of history from the late 19th century until today, and delved into difficult topics such as right and left-wing contemporary anti-Semitism and the hazards of child-bearing in Displaced Persons camps after WWII. We look forward to offering this seminar again, both at Humboldt and other universities.

Now it’s time for a summer break and a chance to hang out on the beach with my family in Sardinia. But it won’t be long before I begin my next new assignment, teaching for the Council on International Educational Exchange’s new Global Institute Berlin.

HTW photo courtesy of Avery Swarthout

Europe’s Evolving Jewish Diaspora

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220px-Spiezer_Chronik_Jan_Hus_1485Despite the much acclaimed resurgence of Jewish life in Europe in recent decades, the Pew Research Center and others have documented a continued decline in Europe’s Jewish population since the Holocaust ended. Researchers expect this trend to continue. A recent Pew study projected that by 2050 Europe’s share of the global Jewish population will decline from the current ten percent to less than eight percent.

With European Jewry often overshadowed by the voices and perspectives of Jews in the U.S. and Israel, European Jews have launched numerous organizations and initiatives to strengthen their communal ties. One positive development for the future of Europe’s Jewish community was Spain’s announcement this week that it has created a path to citizenship for the descendants of Jews expelled during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

Yes, that’s right. Those who can trace their Jewish heritage more than five centuries back to Spain, and pass a Spanish language and culture test, can submit their citizenship applications as of October. The Spanish government estimates 90,000 people will apply for citizenship during its initial three year window for applications. This news came coincidentally at the same time my sister and I had begun researching a claim our mother often made while we were growing up, that her ancestors came from Spain. If I brush up on my beginner Spanish and plan to spend some time on the Costa Brava this summer, perhaps I’ll even qualify for Spanish citizenship.

The number of new Spanish Jewish citizens is likely to be quite small and those who do receive their citizenship may have no plans to move to Spain. But just as Germany’s Jewish community is becoming more diverse, so will the European Jewish diaspora. A larger Sephardic Jewish population in Europe will strengthen and enrich European Jewish life. I hope it will also help to broaden the outlook of some German Jewish institutions on what it means to be Jewish.

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