No Time Wasted

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Timing can mean everything in life, making for sheer bliss when it’s right and dashed hopes when it isn’t. This year I set my sights on completing a book manuscript in time to take a ten day summer vacation in Italy with my family. Whether from due diligence or dumb luck, somehow it worked out.

The vacation was every bit the reward I had hoped for. After months of wrangling with some of the eleven contributors to my anthology on reclaimed German citizenship, I craved physical activity in the outdoors. Hiking up to panoramic vistas in the karst terrain outside Trieste and walking in Rilke’s footsteps near the Duino Castle where he lived helped me to clear out my mind and sweat out my stress. I savored the long days that ended with eating pizza parmigiana and sipping Aperol spritzes while getting all five Swarthouts to answer the “question of the evening.”

Just a little more time in the family bubble, exploring and eating our way through northern Italy, would have been nice. Coming home meant not just going back to work, but also getting ready to send our second child (and only daughter!) off to college in Scotland. I’ve got to keep adapting to the movement of time.

But I was pleasantly surprised upon our return to receive the manuscript proof of A Place They Called Home from the publisher. At just over 200 pages it has a nice heft to it, uses some cool fonts like Baskerville, and includes great photos of the authors. I started proofreading this weekend, and though it’s a bit tedious, it’s a good feeling to be in the polishing-up stage. Plans are underway for a book launch late this year and I’ll be sure to post them here.

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Chasing Memories in Washington Heights

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The last time I was in Washington Heights, New York, I must have taken the familiar drive with my parents over the George Washington Bridge from our home in White Meadow Lake, New Jersey. That was (I have to admit) almost fifty years ago. This time I took the uptown #1 train to Dyckman Street with my sister, cousin and daughter. Our mission: to find the building where our grandparents used to live on Thayer Street, the site of many happy childhood memories that linked me to my German Jewish heritage.

Despite encountering the largest number of garbage bags I may have ever seen on a city street, we strolled along in a bubble of nostalgic enthusiasm trying to identify the building where Nana Irma prepared mouth-watering meals for our extended family on all the Jewish holidays. Could it be number 54 or 56, we wondered? The similarity of most of the buildings complicated our search, necessitating a focus on the most minute differences in walkways, window ledges, and brick patterns. Suddenly cousin Debbie shouted out “98!” and two seconds later, there it was.

Looking slightly less care-worn than some of its neighbors, we immediately knew we’d found the right place. Approaching the front door, we peered in to the lobby and practically squealed over the familiar elevator and tile floor. Before we could even consider our next move, the front buzzer rang as if Nana Irma herself had seen us and granted us entry. We stepped inside and I remembered the excitement of rushing around the corner and up the few steps to the ground floor apartment where my nana and papa lived. We’d gotten this far so the next step was to retrace those long ago steps, and, yes, ring the doorbell.

The doorway to the past was literally opened by an incredibly gracious family who allowed the four of us to walk through the small, simple two-bedroom apartment. Fighting back tears in order to make polite conversation, I learned that they too felt at home in this rather humble setting. We stayed only a few minutes, just long enough to indulge our desire to touch the past and feel the presence of those long gone. The apartment was mostly as I remembered it, validating the mental images I’d clung to since I was a little girl.

We can’t travel back in time, but we can hold on to the past if we try.

Photos courtesy of Olivia Swarthout

Beyond Kippas

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I forgot to bring a kippa to this week’s ‘Berlin Wears the Kippa’ rally, held in the aftermath of a recent anti-Semitic incident in an area of Berlin known to attract more foodies and trend-setters than bigots and hooligans. “Oh well, here I am four years after attending a similar rally against anti-Semitism at the Brandenburg Gate and all the speeches sound exactly the same,” I thought. I felt more glum and out of place than inspired by the crowd of 2500 or so people clapping and nodding their heads in response to the speeches.

One thing that has changed since 2014 is that Germany has a new anti-Semitism commissioner who will take office next week. One of Felix Klein’s top goals is to create a centralized database of anti-Semitic incidents. Better documentation of such hate crimes will lead to stronger response and prevention measures. But it’s not enough. I hope Mr. Klein will also take steps to increase community-level initiatives to confront hate crimes, the vast majority of which are already documented to come from the far right.

After my failed attempts to pursue volunteer work with the Jüdische Gemeinde (Berlin’s official Jewish Community) a few years ago, which I wrote about in Tikkun Daily, I turned my attention back to other pursuits. But now that I’m close to having a final manuscript for my book, A Place They Called Home, it’s time to revisit the question “What can I do?” I’ve been inspired by initiatives such as AVIVA Berlin’s efforts to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue, the 2013 Jew in the Box exhibit at the Jewish Museum Berlin, and the Happy Hippie Jew Bus (which came to visit my students this week). Berlin is full of creative people who are indeed doing something.

Wearing a kippa to support the fight against anti-Semitism is an important symbolic measure, a starting point for more sustained community action. Berlin is a creative metropolis where top-down and bottom up initiatives can combine to foster an environment where Jewish leaders need not warn the Jewish community not to wear a kippa when walking around our city.

You can read an expanded version of this post on The Times of Israel Blog.

The Way Out — And Back

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Spending part of last week inside the University of Luxembourg’s imposing steel skyscraper, situated next door to an even more imposing former steel manufacturing facility was a little eerie. Persistently gray and rainy skies rounded out the steely gray landscape. But the engaging group of historians at the conference The Way Out: Microhistories of Flight from Nazi Germany kept me in good spirits and the feverish work of the translators (English, French, German) kept me entertained whenever there was a dull moment. My presentation about the German Jewish citizenship experience went well and a few attendees even asked to be notified when my book A Place They Called Home comes out.

The other 23 presentations at the conference focused on the pre- and post-war experiences of refugees in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Riga, the No Man’s Land, and many other places. I wasn’t sure how well my more contemporary focus on “the way back” through reclaimed German citizenship would fit into the conference theme. But I felt reassured when Bob Moore, the historian who gave the closing remarks, commented on how extensively the Holocaust has been studied and how important it is for micro-historians to couch their work in a broader framework.

I’m not a micro-historian (or even a historian), but I agree that we can expand knowledge by studying choices made at the individual level, choices that can illuminate “the space of the possible.” Examining the personal histories of re-naturalized German citizens will, I hope, give insight into how descendants of Jewish families who fled the Nazis are forming new connections to contemporary German and European society.

One Loss, Many Celebrations

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This year began with the death of my mother. My sister Andie and I are still adjusting to the fact that we no longer have parents. In April we brought mom to her final resting place next to our father in Bozeman, Montana.

In the middle of the year Olivia graduated with Honors from the John F. Kennedy School of Berlin and we celebrated at the Abitur Ball in Wannsee. She’s now headed to California for a gap year internship with Yosemite National Park. In September she will begin her studies at the University of Glasgow. She’s going to study Statistics!

In August we splurged on a family vacation in Gran Canaria to celebrate Andie’s sixtieth birthday. Everyone needed a break from work and studies so we stayed at a resort and spent a lot of time at the pool. We squeezed in a little bit of sightseeing too.

Sam’s bar mitzvah, led by Cantor Jalda Rebling at the Jüdisches Waisenhaus Berlin, was the biggest family event of the year. Andie had just moved to Santa Barbara when one of the worst fires in California history broke out. She left in the middle of the Thomas fire to be with us for Sam’s coming of age ceremony on December 16th. We’re also grateful that my brother-in-law Todd and his wife Barbara who live in Malawi took time out from their family vacation in Amsterdam to join us.

Another special bar mitzvah guest was my friend Mike, who I met through this blog. He drove all the way from Chalon-sur Saone, France in his rather ancient VW van to celebrate with us. Mike is a phenomenal photographer and human being. Please have a look at his photo-essay, Samuel Brian Swarthout Becomes a Bar Mitzvah, a beautiful gift to our family.

Thanks for reading my blog this year and best wishes for 2018.

Year-End Book News

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Blogging took a back seat this year to work, family and other priorities, including my book project on reclaiming German citizenship. The project continues to enrich my life through the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve read, and my ongoing education about the role of citizenship in a new chapter of German Jewish history.

I have signed a publishing contract with Berlinica, “an English-language publishing house that brings Berlin to America.” The final manuscript is not yet ready, but I’m excited to share the book cover after months of back and forth discussions over email. Some of those discussions led to stressful days and sleepless nights, but I’m enjoying my first experience of working with a publisher.

As the book is taking shape, I’ve started to get out from behind my computer and give a few talks about my work-in-progress. This gives me a chance to seek input on how to frame the narratives in a post-Holocaust historical context. I’m looking forward to presenting next month at the University of Luxembourg’s conference, The Way Out: Microhistories of Flight from Nazi Germany. Although much of this conference will focus on the war years and immediate aftermath, the personal stories in my book offer micro-level insights into a contemporary form of Jewish return to Germany.

The grant I received from the Stiftung Zurückgeben gave a big boost to my work this year. Having the support of Germany’s only foundation that supports Jewish women working in the creative sector probably helped increase the response rate for my many emails, phone calls, and appointment requests. I’m grateful for this support and look forward to announcing a publication date sometime next year.

Bundestagswahl 2017 – We Voted!

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With one of Berlin’s newest voters in tow, we headed to the polls today to help elect Germany’s 19th Bundestag. We were divided over the liberal parties and candidates on the ballot, but a much stronger force united us to vote against the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor may have been a foregone conclusion, but a huge motivating factor that drove us to vote was the chance to weaken a hateful party that campaigned with slogans like “we’re for bikinis not burkas” and “new Germans: we make them ourselves.”

Voting in my third German election at the start of the Jewish New Year once again affirmed my sense of belonging here. I trust Merkel to try harder than her abominable U.S. counterpart to meet the promise of democratic ideals. Although I’m horrified at the prospect of the AfD entering the Bundestag, I know that the vast majority of voters will have made a wiser choice.

This morning we awoke to the familiar gray skies and rain of the turning season, but the day felt anything but gloomy. Perhaps it was the Kenyans and Ethiopians who dominated the Berlin marathon (and almost broke the world record) that boosted my optimism about Germany’s future. Or maybe it was the now familiar sight of our fellow Berliners happily picking up a grilled bratwurst on their way out from our local polling place.

The Bundestag elections also come at a time when I’ve reached agreement with a local publisher on the terms of a contract for my book on restored German citizenship. I don’t yet have the contract in hand so I’ll hold off on saying more for the moment. There are many reasons why reclaimed German citizenship makes sense for families that were persecuted under the Third Reich, and I hope there are just as many reasons why the time is right for this book.

Fragments from Shanghai

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An entry in an address book: Goldstein, Erich, Oppeln, Plakatmaler, 153 Lisoyang.

That was the one fragmentary detail about my husband Brian’s family that we discovered during a pleasurable Sunday afternoon with Sonja Mühlberger. Sonja and Brian’s mother Maude were both born in Shanghai just a few months apart in 1939. Both girls were in utero during the passage to Shanghai, born into families who took refuge from the Nazis in one of the last available havens for German Jews. After looking through many photos to see if Brian could recognize a young Maude Goldstein (he couldn’t), Sonja showed us her copy of the 1939 address book where we found a listing for his Papa Erich.

Maude died when Brian was young so he never had a chance to learn much about her early childhood in Hongkou, Shanghai’s designated area for Jews. Sometimes referred to as the Shanghai Ghetto, it was a ghetto without walls, inhabited by Jews, Chinese, Russians, and a broad assortment of misfits and adventurers. Sonja told of a relatively happy childhood within this two and a half square kilometer area far from the land her parents missed and would return to after the war. Her recollections gave Brian some reassurance about his mother’s childhood and insight into what it must have been like.

Thanks to Sonja for sharing her stories with us, for opening a window into the life led by the mother-in-law I never met. We enjoyed visiting Sonja at her home in Friedrichshagen, the southeastern community of Berlin where she has lived since 1961. Her deep roots in the region were evident from the many people who greeted her when we strolled down to the Müggelsee after our Kaffee and Apfelkuchen.

If you’d like to learn more about Sonja, her story of survival in Shanghai is featured in the same Deutsche Welle German Jewish Cultural Heritage Series that our family participated in.

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.