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.

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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.

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.