Across Continents and Generations

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Sometimes the scattered pursuits of life come together to form a moment of connection, a moment that inspires and enlightens. This week my online acquaintance with a Holocaust survivor, my faculty position at CIEE’s Global Institute Berlin, and my desire to impart knowledge of the German Jewish heritage to my children and members of their generation came together in one such connecting moment.

fabiansThe occasion was Garry Fabian’s visit to Germany to speak about his book A Look Back Over My Shoulder. It wasn’t just Garry’s story of internment, survival, and reconciliation that made the evening special, or the fact that a second German edition of his book has just been released (Blick Zurück. Wie ein Stuttgarter Junge das KZ Theresienstadt überlebt hat). Garry travelled with his daughter Carole and grandson Seamus from Australia, giving our students the chance to hear one family’s Holocaust story from an intergenerational perspective.

Garry is a true story teller whose easy-going speaking style invites us to face the past and learn about what we must never forget. He shared many vignettes from his childhood experiences as a refugee and concentration camp internee, but words were hardly necessary to demonstrate the strength of his spirit with his daughter and grandson at his side. Carole shared her second generation perspective, speaking of her grandmother’s silence and how she gained awareness of the plight of Melbourne’s Jewish refugees as she was growing up. Perched among the college students, my daughter Olivia, a high school senior, could relate to Seamus who spoke of how growing up Jewish and learning about the Holocaust were not as central to his identity as they were for his elders.

Born in Stuttgart in 1934, Garry established a renewed connection to Germany over the course of many years, ultimately deciding to reclaim his citizenship in 2007. Carole and her children have also become German citizens. I’m honored that Garry has contributed his citizenship story for my book project, which may soon include a submission from his descendants as well.

Jewish Voters: Were Your Families Divided?

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Are there other American families of German Jewish descent who found themselves on opposite sides in the U.S. presidential election? I’m still trying to wrap my head around how one of my relatives who fled Nazi Germany in 1938 supported the president-elect. I’ve pored through many articles to gain an understanding of what seems so incomprehensible. Why did nearly one third of Jewish voters support Trump? Will voter remorse settle in after the deportations begin? How will Jewish supporters react to the already growing number of hate crimes? And how will they explain away the appointment of a chief White House strategist with ties to white supremacists?

The quest for a rational answer to these questions is unnerving, but it doesn’t compare to the emotional pang of discovering that a member of your family is spreading false, hate-filled, and racist news stories and memes. As one relative’s steady stream of offensive social media posts grew, my sister and I ultimately realized that we were looking at a hard right member of our family who was overtly xenophobic if not outright racist. Ideological differences that had been simmering under a covered pot for years were suddenly exposed in the glaring light of Facebook. “What now?” we keep asking ourselves and each other.

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Like millions of others I am seeking constructive ways to move forward. Attending Berlin’s anti-Trump protest over the weekend and making a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center were first steps. My sister has also become politically activated and engaged. But I’m not quite ready to reconcile with family members who expressed views that I believe are immoral. I need some more time before taking that step.

A few weeks ago I wrote a Holocaust-related piece titled Why Don’t We Talk More About Reconciliation? I wasn’t thinking about family relationships at the time, but the sources I consulted may offer guidance for finding a path towards peaceful coexistence with parties who face each other across a deep chasm —  families included.

What You Should Read for Rosh Hashanah

My Rosh Hashanah gift to myself was the luxury of lying in bed for hours at night reading Shulem Deen’s riveting memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return. Deen writes with a simple and elegant style of his journey into and ultimately away from the ultra-Hasidic Skverer sect in New Square, New York. This book deeply touched me because of my own struggle to understand and accept ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices, so different from my own beliefs in a more open and inclusive form of Judaism. A shared heritage seems to increase the stakes for coming to terms with cultural differences.

What’s so impressive about Deen’s memoir is his ability to describe the tragic consequences of his loss of faith and exit from the Hasidic world without bitterness or contempt. The reader comes away so impressed with this effort that despite being appalled by many of the Skverer practices he describes, it would be a dishonor to allow hateful feelings to surface. It’s refreshing to encounter such a calm and measured voice while so much of the world is awash in the politics of hate. What better book to read for the Jewish New Year than one that shows how it’s possible to confront cruelty with integrity.

Deen’s book also gave me the inspiration to continue with my own memoir writing and Book Project on Restored German Citizenship. As the number of submissions and my list of publishing contacts have slowly grown, I’m still seeking to refine my voice and writing style. I’m just finishing up a new draft of my citizenship story for the book and am inspired to continue working on it until it fully captures my personal journey.

German Jewish Welcome Committee

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We hit the jackpot with German Jewish visitors this summer, so many that one of our new friends referred to our family as a German Jewish Welcome Committee. We met in Berlin’s cafes, restaurants and wine gardens. Sometimes I shlepped the whole family along and sometimes I ventured off on my own, arriving early at a cafe so I could try to pick out the person I was virtually acquainted with through my blog or book project.

new friendsEach encounter revealed a nexus in our family backgrounds and stories. A fellow Montanan with an adopted son faced the same challenges that we faced with our adopted son’s German citizenship application. We had an instant rapport with the daughter and grandchildren of a long-time follower of this blog who, upon arrival in Berlin, felt as drawn to the city’s eclectic multicultural landscape as we were in 2010. Over coffee and cake at the Literaturhaus Cafe in Charlottenburg, we made some surprising discoveries with a visitor from the Bay Area, including common employers and similar paths from secular to Renewal Judaism.

naval_anniversaryOur trip to Riga, St. Petersburg, and Helsinki was another highlight of our summer. It wasn’t the sunniest of vacations, but the compensation for bad weather was that our kids shared lots of secrets about their private lives with us during all the time we spent in pubs and cafes seeking shelter from the rain. Little did we know that our visit to St. Petersburg coincided with the 320 year anniversary of the Russian Navy, an occasion that brought thousands to the banks of the River Neva for a parade of vessels.

It was as difficult as I expected to find time to work on my book project on restored German citizenship during the last two months, but I did manage to submit one grant application, complete some research, find a few more contributors, and begin a new draft of my citizenship story. And a few days ago I was pleasantly surprised to hear from a literary agent who accidentally stumbled upon this blog and was interested in the book. However, she’d like a manuscript “auf Deutsch” so if anyone would like to offer translation services, please be in touch!

German Jews and the Brexit

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The uptick in applications for restored German citizenship from German Jews in the UK has begun. Prior to the Brexit referendum, UK citizens of German Jewish descent might not have felt a desire to have their German citizenship restored. But loss of an EU passport casts Germany in a new light. Thomas Harding expressed the sentiments of many others in his recent article for the Guardian, Brexit Drove me to Embrace my German Roots. Thanks to a reader for sending me this article in which Harding also cites Germany’s humane refugee policy as another factor that inspired him to seek German citizenship. A host of other recent articles report on Jewish fears of rising extremism and xenophobia in the post-Brexit UK.

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Headed to the UK but for how long?

Our own disappointment in the Brexit vote hit home on a personal level. Our son Avery just met the rigorous requirements for acceptance to the mechanical engineering program at University of Southampton. He’ll still be able to enroll as an EU citizen for the next two years, but his tuition would more than double if he is reclassified as an international student so he’ll need to have a contingency plan for completing his degree. Our daughter Olivia hopes to study environmental science in Scotland where a potential new referendum on leaving the UK might still make that possible as an EU citizen. We’d love for our kids to pursue their undergraduate degrees in Germany, but as German and EU citizens we also value the freedom they have to choose among the member countries.

British Jews eligible for German citizenship may not be ready to fully embrace Germany, but does this matter? The fact that Germany offers them an avenue to membership in a more integrated European society is reason enough to clasp the hand of the German state. Despite pressures from its own anti-immigrant forces, Germany is still the country with the world’s best passport. British Jews of German descent who reclaim German citizenship will have some complicated identity issues to untangle. I’ve been in touch with a few applicants and hope to include some of their Brexit-related stories in my book on the German Jewish citizenship experience.

Book Update: Reading, Revising, and ‘Rithmatic

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BerlinsideThank goodness it’s been raining for my first week of summer break. I’ve spent the week indoors reading submissions, revising my own work, starting a background chapter, and entering numbers into a growing spreadsheet of annual German citizenship approvals. The more I work the more I realize how much work there is to do for my book on German Jews who have applied for Restored German Citizenship. How long will this endeavor take? I really have no idea.

I’ve logged many hours on the website for Germany’s Statisisches Bundesamt (Federal Office of Statistics). They publish well-organized, detailed reports with loads of useful statistics on German population, migration, and citizenship, among other topics. I’m now starting to piece together a historical overview of German Jews from every continent who have reclaimed their German citizenship. More than 30,000 people have taken this step in the last ten years alone. I hope the book will shed light on the significance of this form of Wiedergutmachung, a German term for reparations or redress.

After a fairly intensive teaching schedule so far this year, it’s nice to work in the quiet solitude of my apartment. I have at least a few more days until the kids are out of school and I’ll be forced to find a workspace at the local library. But this project will require more than solitary confinement. I also need to get out and talk to people about the book, articulate its rationale, bounce my ideas off friends and colleagues, find financial support for research, get a little moral support, and ultimately find a publisher.

Moments of doubt occasionally flicker through my mind. The biggest challenge is just finding the time to accomplish the tasks at hand. This summer I’ll also be busy with preparations to send our son Avery off to college in the UK, a vacation in Latvia and Russia, a few visitors, and some initial moves towards buying an apartment in Berlin. Maybe it will be a rainy summer that will enhance my productivity, but I’d prefer blue skies and lots of sunshine.

Photo credit: Berlinside

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.