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.


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.

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.”