Nesting Instincts

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JFK School of Berlin 2017 graduate

Denial is no longer an option now that my second child’s high school graduation is just one month away. As another school year winds down I find myself casting wistful gazes at young women with baby strollers and daddys wiping smudges of ice cream off their toddlers’ faces. I wake up each morning feeling relieved to still count two children at home. I’m eager to do their laundry, prepare their favorite meals, and join them for a game of German Yatzy.

“Make sure you keep busy!” has been my mantra for the past year of coping with my dwindling nest. I’ve taken this counsel to such an extreme that I have almost no free time. I’m toiling over my German citizenship book project, upping my hours at my job, and criss-crossing the city to check out every apartment that comes on the market within my desired five kilometer radius. Seven years after our first temporary move to Berlin, I’m ready to create my own more permanent nest here.

Apartment hunting is a fun way to explore our favorite Berlin neighborhoods and get a peek into the city’s beautiful turn of the century Altbaus. I love the feeling of mystery about what we’ll discover when we step inside. There’ve been many surprises such as the penthouse that gave off the distinct feeling of a bordello, an apartment where all the interior walls were moveable, and one with a bathroom that looked like an outhouse.

After going to 31 Besichtigungstermine (viewing appointments), finding an affordable 3 bedroom, 2 bath apartment with a balcony and an elevator in a historic building is starting to feel a little unrealistic. But a small penthouse in a newer building recently caught our eye. The best part: no need for renovations!

A Pleasant and Productive Journey

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As I settled into my seat on Monday afternoon for the train ride from Cologne back to Berlin, I waited for the the familiar words to float through the intercom: “Wir wünschen Ihnen eine angenehme Reise.” The Deutsche Bahn can always be counted on to wish passengers a pleasant journey, and indeed it was pleasant to be shuttled along at 200 km an hour knowing that my efforts to illuminate the meaning of reclaimed German citizenship for German Jews were starting to yield results.

The year has gotten off to a good start with some new submissions for my book, an expression of interest from a publisher, and a number of inquiries from journalists who are tracking the growing interest in European citizenship from American and British Jews. Two articles linking current politics and the citizenship trend appeared this week: Putting Past Aside, Jews Seek German Citizenship in the Age of Trump and Trump is Driving Some American Jews to Reclaim Citizenship in Europe.

My trip to Cologne fulfilled an important goal for my book: interviewing a federal official responsible for naturalization claims from members of families persecuted during the Nazi era. I felt like I hit the jackpot when I entered an office and found not one, but three Bundesverwaltungsamt officials seated around a table prepared to answer my questions. I had spent a lot of time preparing the questions in German and was pleased to get answers to most of them. The hard part was understanding the full meaning of the responses that covered a fair amount of legal and technical details. I’m grateful to Agnieszka, my friend and colleague who came along to help with interpretation.

The working trip to Cologne also doubled as a quick mother-daughter getaway. We enjoyed lots of sunshine, a Sunday morning stroll along the Rhine, and some great Thai food. I even got to experience what it’s like to be a millennial by taking selfies with Olivia. I’m still working on my technique, but we had fun taking this one in the elevator of our hotel.

Book Project Gets Boost for 2017

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The transition to the new year brought good news for my book project in the form of a grant from the Stiftung Zurückgeben, a foundation that supports the creative work of Jewish women living in Germany. It helps to have support beyond my inner circle of family and friends, the cheerleaders who are a part of my book journey. Institutional support will boost my research and outreach efforts and help bring this multi-pronged, organically evolving arrangement of prose to publication.

Getting to know some of the people who are contributing their stories for the book has been a highlight of the past year. Low points have come when getting tongue-tied trying to explain the book to people in German, being unsure of next steps to take, and receiving comments like the following from a reviewer of an early draft of my memoir chapter: “This draft feels very much like the outer layer of an enormous onion that you’ve only started to peel.”

owlrightThe journey to my inner voice has been slow and bumpy, with lots of sweating and squirming in my seat for hours on end. But sometimes I look up from my keyboard and find my daughter Olivia, sitting across from me at the table where we often work together and deeply immersed in a drawing project. She shows extraordinary discipline in her own artistic endeavors, a young role model who is also my most constructive and dedicated editor.

I’ve started the year with a good dose of inspiration, support, and determination, ready for the next steps in my effort to make meaning out of the thousands who have reclaimed their German citizenship in the post-Holocaust era.

Drawing by Olivia Swarthout

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.