German Citizenship – The Next Decade

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Things got off to a rocky start when Brian and I arrived at our local Rathaus to renew our German passports last month. With the stern tone of many a German bureaucrat, Frau O. admonished us that we needed two appointments rather than one to complete our business and that my passport photo did not meet German requirements. As we waited in stunned silence to see if our appointment would proceed, she delivered the final punch. She could not process our applications until she contacted the German Consulate in the U.S. to see if we had already requested new passports. What?

As my blood started to boil and my head spun with memories of the bureaucratic hurdles and delays from my first German passport application, Frau O. explained that she needed confirmation that we were not engaged in… I’m not quite sure what… subterfuge, identity theft, espionage??? Despite my proficient German, I could not understand the basis for this extra step in the process. This was a simple document renewal, not a claim for new rights or privileges.

As my emotional temperature rose and I tried to explain my family history through clenched teeth without crying, something happened that I’ve often observed with German officials. Frau O. became a lot nicer when she saw my distress and assured me that this was a routine procedure that would not cause a significant delay.

Bureaucratic rigamarole notwithstanding, it’s actually becoming easier for descendants of families persecuted by the Nazis to reclaim their German citizenship. Some of the exclusions which I’ve previously written about (see New Citizenship, New Responsibilities) have been eliminated and a new legal entitlement to citizenship for certain individuals and their descendants has been created. You can read about these changes on the German Consulate website.

Three weeks after our appointment with Frau O. and just before my birthday, we got the news that we were all clear for renewed passports. Time for a celebration at one of our favourite restaurants, Royals and Rice. Our documents still haven’t arrived, but my anxiety has abated and I trust I’ll have my new passport when I head to California to visit my sister next month.

Starting our second decade as German citizens reminds me of all the privileges and benefits we enjoy. Germany’s social democracy continues to provide citizens and residents with a strong safety net just as our family continues to have a higher standard of living than we did back in Montana. In fact, social benefits have gotten even better since we first moved here:

  • Berlin provides free public transit passes for all school kids as of 2019
  • no quarterly payments at the doctor’s office for people with public health insurance
  • increase of monthly Kindergeld payment per child from 184 euros for your first two children in 2010 to 219 euros for your first two children in 2021
  • free entrance to Berlin museums on the first Sunday of every month as of July 2021

German society still has many social ills to address and there’s much at stake in this weekend’s federal elections. In July I wrote about the need for the Jewish community to pursue a more inclusive approach in fighting hate and the role we can play in strengthening German democracy. Over the next year I will volunteer as a mentor for people at risk of dropping out of their educational programs. I can’t think of a better way to contribute than to support the educational pursuits of Germany’s increasingly diverse population.

From the Shadows to the Light

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I’ve always been someone who struggles to cope with feelings of anger and the desire for revenge. I’ve held on to grudges when I knew it was time to let go. I’ve never been a victim of an atrocious crime, but I’ve had ugly encounters with men who tried to take advantage of me. When I explored my family history, I discovered I hadn’t been told the complete truth about my family’s escape from the Nazis – not everyone had survived. So I was drawn to Doris Gray’s book, Leaving the shadow of pain: A cross-cultural exploration of truth, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing (Logos Verlag Berlin, 2020).

How does a victim of trauma forge a path to healing and survival? Who benefits the most from a victim’s decision to forgive? Does reconciliation necessarily lead to healing? These are some of the central questions at the heart of Doris Gray’s powerful and moving book. In weaving together her own traumatic experiences of loss and rape, the discovery of her father’s hidden past as a Holocaust survivor, and her research on Tunisian women who are victims of oppression and violence, Gray offers insights on how to confront the most deeply painful experiences a person can endure. She helps us see why forgiveness may be too heavy a burden for victims. If we choose not to forgive or reconcile with a perpetrator, the alternative need not be vengeance or everlasting enmity, she says. 

It is a false logic to believe that silence and with that a deceptive sense of harmony serves the larger good of a community or a state. It does not.

But it takes courage to leave the shadow of pain and it’s an individual choice how to do so. “To walk back out into the light is scary, and I believe we cannot do it alone,” says Gray. Her strong and courageous voice is a compelling guide for anyone seeking to come to terms with trauma, a guide that may help someone feel less alone on their path to healing. Her book also illustrates how our shared humanity connects us with the tragedies of others across cultural, historic and religious lines.

A Queer Cafe, a Dog, and German Politics

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It’s been fascinating to watch my daughter explore her Jewish identity as a young adult. At age 13 Olivia decided that she wasn’t Jewish, at around age 18 she started to rethink that decision, and as a university student in her early 20’s she has been actively engaged with Glasgow’s Jewish culture. I can’t speak for her, but I hope one day she will write about the evolution of her identity and what connects her to Judaism.

For now, I’m sharing Olivia’s in depth interview with the Pink Peacock Cafe that recently appeared in the Glasgow University Union’s student magazine. The social justice orientation of this novel new endeavour makes it an inspiring addition to the European Jewish landscape.

Here’s the link: Queer, Jewish, Anarchist, Local: An Interview With pink peacock

I wish we could visit Olivia and take in a little Yiddishkeit at the Pink Peacock Cafe, but it looks like we won’t be travelling beyond the borders of Berlin for quite a while. We did make a trip to Berlin’s new airport to meet our newly adopted dog from Turkey a few weeks ago. He’s keeping us smiling and entertained when we’re not on Netflix.

I’ve also had lots of time to immerse myself in reading about the field of antisemitism research. My initial impressions about the lack of a generally accepted way to define and measure antisemitism have mostly been confirmed. Aside from all the diverse approaches and controversy within the field, there seems to be a huge gap between the findings of academic researchers and the persistent headlines about how Jewish life in Europe is doomed. 

Here’s a short piece I wrote on current politics in Germany that ties in some of the recent survey data on public opinion towards Jews and Muslims in Europe: Germany’s Weakened Far Right: What’s at Stake in 2021?

And here’s Bizmark, aka Bizzy. Aside from growling at the very tall man who lives on the floor below us, he’s adapting quite well to his new home.

Old Traditions, New Endeavors

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It was the first time in five years our entire family was together for Thanksgiving. We managed to gather despite the pandemic and without violating any travel restrictions. The nightmarish health and political scenes of the past year receded from our minds as we enjoyed good food and some new board games. Some American traditions still run strong in our household after ten years in Berlin, although this year we substituted stuffed butternut squash for the turkey.

As the pandemic has worn on, I’ve made my way through many home improvement projects and Netflix series. I even managed to complete my first knitted garment. But I’ve also had time to ask myself why I keep making career choices that lead to frustration and disillusionment. I’ve written up the reasons Why I’m Leaving Higher Education in a recent essay and shared some ideas for how to change academia’s prevalent business model in a related piece, Jewish Values in Higher Education, Or the Lack Thereof.

Retirement may be on the horizon, but I still enjoy working as an educator. My husband Brian has his own booming educational venture on the side, Step by Step Science, and we’ve decided to make a family business out of it. This is the best way I can think of to support teaching and learning in today’s challenging circumstances. Distance learning is here to stay and independent content creators can help fill the gaps left by schools and universities with self-guided digital resources. That’s just what Step by Step Science does with the high school math and science videos on its YouTube channel.

Google shares its revenues with creators of popular YouTube channels, and the amount we receive has steadily grown over the past ten years. All the videos are free to watch and available to anyone with an internet connection. I’m now the content editor for the new Step by Step Science blog, copy editor for the teaching materials that accompany the videos, and general business development manager. It all feels like a refreshing change from working for large institutions that devalue the human capital that is at the heart of the educational process.

So, in 2021 I’ll still be in the blogosphere and keeping my eye on the currents of Jewish life in Germany. Jewish topics were not my focus this year, but I did start a research project on the design of anti-Semitism surveys and what appear to be outdated or invalid questions that produce misleading findings. People tell me this will be a highly unpopular topic for publication, which may be why I haven’t gotten very far. My edited volume, A Place They Called Home, is still available through all major book outlets and this is the second year the City of Hamburg has offered it to former Jewish citizens who have participated in the city’s visitor program.

Wishing you a “Guten Rutsch”, happy holidays, and good health in the new year.

Book Royalties: Giving Back

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The term ‘royalty’ has been associated with rights granted by a sovereign ruler to an individual since the late 15th century. That is a fitting term for the share of profit given by the publisher who has almost complete control over the fate of an author’s body of work that represents many hours of hard, sweat-soaked labor.

When I promised that all royalties from sales of A Place They Called Home would be donated for good causes, I wondered if there ever would be any royalties. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that our book generated a modest sum of 435 Euros in 2019. Now we have the chance to give something back. Just as the book project was supported by the Stiftung Zurückgeben, a foundation that ‘gives back’ to Jewish women living in Germany, we can do our small part to help repair all that is bent and broken in the world.

After consulting with the co-authors of our book on reclaiming German citizenship, we are making the following donations:

These donations will help people living on the streets in Berlin, needy Holocaust survivors, victims of police violence in America, and people suffering from Covid-19 in South Africa. Donating the royalties has given me a chance to reconnect with my wonderful group of co-authors and offers me a small sense of solace after the recent months of feeling helpless and frustrated during the global pandemic.

Andy Warhol painting by Olivia Swarthout. Follow Olivia’s art on instagram at instagram.com/grendelsfather

Stitch by Stitch, Solace during the Pandemic

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We have always been a family of knitters. It’s what we do to relax and pass the time when we are indoors. It’s just as soothing yet more enduring than a cup of chicken noodle soup. A good knitting project occupies more time than a game of Monopoly or Ticket to Ride. And the soft yarn brings relief to fingers tired from too many hours at the keyboard. Our local yarn shop, Frau Wolle, is open during this time for individual appointments and even does yarn deliveries. To knit my way through the pandemic, I’m working on my first garment, a tank top that is off to a dubious start.

Aside from knitting, I scour the news each day for a sign that there is “Licht am Ende des Tunnels” (light at the end of the tunnel). This weekend I came across an item on German idioms for getting through a crisis. The one that stood out for me was “In Der Ruhe liegt die Kraft” (Strength lies in serenity). Berliners, who can come across as dour and grumpy in an average daily encounter, mostly exude a sense of calm in the face of the coronavirus. Toilet paper doesn’t seem to be as scarce here as it is in some places, though recently we’ve had a hard time finding flour. Not known for hugging and kissing, Germans also seem to have no problem following social distance guidelines. Cooperation and Ordnung, along with trust in government and the health care system, are generally the norm.

Berlin’s calm atmosphere is reflected within my household where four of us have been mostly secluded for the past two weeks without having any family arguments. On Friday night our older son Avery who is stuck in Southampton joined us for Shabbat via Zoom, something we never did before the pandemic. As we lit the candles and recited the blessing, his presence felt almost more real than virtual, bringing us together in peace for a few transitory moments. Like our daughter Olivia, he may also rejoin the family in Berlin if the crisis continues to disrupt his engineering work.

Our family harmony is bound to be disrupted as we work, study, teach, and do everything else from home in the coming weeks. But we are fortunate to be healthy and we’ll knit our way through the crisis, stitch by stitch, not to mention keeping the fridge stocked with wine, baking bread, taking long walks, and staying connected with loved ones online.

Places to Call Home

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Winterfeldtplatz, December 2010

Nine years ago I was learning not to pet peoples’ dogs or smile at strangers like we did back in Montana. Parenting took up a lot more of my time than it does nowadays with only one very independent tenth grader left at home. And I was obsessed with eating giant cheesy brezels with pumpkin seeds on top.

Every year since we moved to Berlin seems to bring as much change as continuity. Retirement planning was a big focus this year, and though it sounds boring, the outcome of our efforts was to swap our house in Montana for a pied-à-terre near my sister in California. We won’t be using it for a while though since Brian and I are both still working full-time, in my case in a new position at a small private international university. But, as I wrote in my essay Reflections on Inhabiting Two Cultures, family ties exert a strong pull and keep me rooted in the U.S. as well as Berlin.

Cutting back on writing this year after A Place They Called Home was published gave me a chance to discover and contribute to other projects documenting a Jewish return to Germany. I especially enjoyed meeting Aaron Lucas, whose forthcoming documentary, I’ll Be Frank, traces his journey through the recorded and animated memories of his Opa who fled Germany in 1939. Aaron is one of the many third generation descendants of German Jews who have moved to Berlin, in his case from Sydney, Australia.

Although 2019 was marred by continuing reports of anti-Semitic incidents and far-right political gains in a number of German state elections, Berliners still turn out regularly in record numbers to oppose the forces of hate that seek to undo the democratic advances of the last 70 years. It’s disappointing that the sensationalised headlines that sow fear and evoke outrage are often followed by scant analysis, a theme I explored in my recent piece, How the Media Distorts Public Perceptions of anti-Semitism.

Each year we put our German passports to good use and are fortunate that the big kids still like to take family trips with us. My dream destination for 2020 is Ethiopia, our son Sam’s birthplace. But if Avery moves to Italy as planned and Olivia continues her studies in Scotland, we won’t be lacking for European getaways either.

Shelf Life

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I never expected fame or fortune from a book about German Jews reclaiming their German citizenship. In fact, the positive reviews and publicity for A Place They Called Home quite exceeded my expectationsMy eleven co-authors and I, most of us novices in the publishing world, were elated that our stories reached, and even touched, an audience of readers interested in our journey towards citizenship and reconciliation. The criticism I feared did not materialize (though it still could!!) and I allowed myself to indulge in a transient sense of pride in our collective accomplishment.

Gratitude and fulfillment notwithstanding, I’ve now learned firsthand that it can be even harder to market a book than to write and edit one. With no agent and a niche publisher of limited resources, I’ve hardly been deluged with speaking invitations. Readers regularly tell me they are unable to get their reviews approved for posting on Amazon.com, a likely factor contributing to sluggish sales. Plans for a soft cover edition and translation into German remain on the back burner. But there’s some good news too.

When the book was released at the Center for Jewish History in New York last December, I made a commitment that any royalties would be used “to foster a robust civil society in which non-native Germans — whatever their religious, ethnic, or cultural background – can make Germany their Heimat.” Our first royalty payment has just been donated to the International Rescue Committee – Deutschland. I plan to do some more targeted marketing towards libraries and academics this fall and hope that the book will generate additional proceeds to contribute to a worthy organization.

In a news climate filled with reports of anti-Semitism, it’s important that we continue to share positive stories and experiences about Jewish life in Germany. Co-author Yermi Brenner has just published a moving personal essay for the Huff Post, I Migrated To The Country That Ethnically Cleansed My Ancestors. If you have ideas for articles, interviews, or speaking engagements to promote the book, please contact me!

BBC’s ‘Heart and Soul’ Comes to Berlin

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audience

My efforts to find a venue for the Berlin book launch of A Place They Called Home had left me frustrated until I met the team at Archetyp Cafe. Owned by a couple of brothers from a German Jewish family, the cafe became our living room for last month’s lively and intimate Sunday afternoon conversation about the “new Jewish return to Germany.” With coffee, home-made cookies, and wine to celebrate the occasion, we delivered our stories into the hands of a warm, receptive, and standing room only audience.

Besides the friends, colleagues, and other Berliners who attended, we were joined by reporters from the BBC and the Jüdische Allgemeine. The BBC’s ‘Heart and Soul’ in depth radio documentary Jewish and Returning to Germany has just been aired and the Jüdische Allgemeine recently published our first German language coverage, Rückkehr nach Berlin. I couldn’t be more pleased with the favorable coverage of the book, including reviews in the Washington Times and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Co-authors Yermi Brenner, Maya Shwayder, and Sylvia Finzi (featured below) easily connected with the audience as they each took the spotlight. We all fielded lots of great questions, Eva Schweitzer (publisher) once again sold all the books she brought along, and Brian Crawford took these amazing photos.

With all the excitement of book launches and press interviews behind me, I’ve taken the first steps on a new project to research restored citizenship for Jewish families from Austria, Lithuania, and other points in Eastern Europe.

To keep things interesting, I’ve also become a volunteer with Rent A Jew, an organization that promotes encounters between Jews and non-Jews in Germany to break down stereotypes and misconceptions. Don’t be fooled by the name, the service is free!


Berlin Book Launch – March 17th

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“A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany” Edited by Donna Swarthout (in English)

WHEN: Sunday, March 17, 3pm-5pm
WHERE: Archetyp Café, Marienburger Str. 5, 10405 Berlin

Donna Swarthout and co-authors will discuss their stories of returning to Germany and reclaiming the German citizenship that was stripped from their families. The event will take place at Archetyp Café, a new coffee shop and cultural center in Prenzlauer Berg that is set to promote the common good in its neighborhood, the city, and beyond.

Books will be available for purchase from Berlinica Publishing LLC.
Complimentary light refreshments will be provided, separate from the café’s standard menu.

The event will be held in English and German.

Buchpräsentation: “A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany” Herausgeberin: Donna Swarthout (in englischer Sprache)

WANN: Sonntag, 17. März, 15:00-17:00 Uhr
WO: Archetyp Café, Marienburger Str. 5, 10405 Berlin

Donna Swarthout und Co-Autorinnen sprechen über ihre Rückkehr nach Deutschland und über die Wiedererlangung ihrer deutschen Staatsangehörigkeit, die ihren Familien einst entzogen wurde. Die Veranstaltung findet im jüngst im Prenzlauer Berg eröffneten Archetyp Café statt, das sich als Kaffeestube und Kulturzentrum der Förderung des Gemeinwohls verschrieben hat: im Kiez, in der Stadt und darüber hinaus.

Das Buch (in englischer Sprache) kann während der Veranstaltung vom Verlag Berlinica Publishing LLC erworben werden.
Über das übliche Café-Angebot hinaus erwartet die Gäste ein kleiner Imbiss mit kleinen Happen und Getränken aufs Haus.

Die Veranstaltung wird in englischer und deutscher Sprache gehalten.

Photo credit: Lee Davis