January News

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My recent ‘featured’ Times of Israel column, I’m Jewish, American and happy to live in Berlin, sparked some outrage and hateful messages from people like Nanette (“I spit on your post!” she screamed into my inbox). Ah well, naysayers like Nanette can’t seem to digest positive reports from Jews who live in Germany. All the more reason to keep writing and seeking to promote understanding of the different ways to lead a Jewish life.

Nasty comments aside, the year is off to a wonderful start. Though this blog is on the back burner, I’ll continue to post occasional news and announcements. So here’s the latest:

Shortly after last month’s book launch at the Leo Baeck Institute, the New York Post published an in depth story, Why American Jews are moving to Germany, that explores the reasons why my family and some of my co-authors chose to reclaim our German citizenship. It’s refreshing to see an American newspaper (a tabloid no less!) provide coverage of Jewish topics that diverges from the usual narrative.

We had fun at the photo shoot in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

My new book, A Place They Called Home, got stuck in a major holiday distribution backlog, leading me into endless and ultimately fruitless communications with Amazon customer service reps. It has finally started shipping and a couple of book reviews are in the works.

Hilde Schramm

The foundation that supported my book project, the Stiftung Zurückgeben, was chosen for a 2019 Obermayer German Jewish History Award, along with Hilde Schramm, one of its founders. Last week I was honored to attend the awards ceremony and see Hilde and the foundation receive the recognition they deserve for supporting the creative pursuits of Jewish women in Germany. Hilde is the daughter of Hitler’s chief architect and one of his key ministers. You can read about her amazing life story here: Reinvented Legacy: Nazi’s Paintings Fund Foundation for Jews

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A Place They Called Home: Event Photos

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A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany was introduced at the Leo Baeck Institute’s Center for Jewish History in New York on December 10th. Yale historian David Sorkin gave introductory remarks, I spoke about the development and significance of the book, and we had a lively panel discussion moderated by William Weitzer, LBI’s Executive Director.

Here are some photos from the book launch which was attended by over 100 people, including seven of eleven co-authors. We missed having Nancy, Ruth, Yermi, and Pippa there for the celebration.

from left: Rabbi Kevin Hale, me, Carole Fabian, Maya Shwayder, Peter Meyer, Sally Hess, Sylvia Finzi (not pictured: Dena Romero)

Carole and Donna

Introducing the book — a special moment for me.

Donna and Sally

panel discussion with David Sorkin (L) and William Weitzer (R)

And here’s our first news coverage: British Jews claim right to German Citizenship before Brexit.

December 10th Book Release

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A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany, my edited collection of essays published by Berlinica and supported by the Stiftung Zurückgeben, will appear on December 10, 2018. This is the first book to give a voice to the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who reclaim German citizenship.

From Berlinica’s press release:

A Place They Called Home includes stories from Pippa Goldschmidt, the Edinburgh-based author of The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space, Rabbi Kevin Hale from Massachusetts, who wrote a mezuzah for the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s Café Bergson in Oswiecim, Poland, TV journalist Maya Shwayder, who has covered topics from LGBT civil rights to the United Nations, and Yermi Brenner, an Israeli reporter who covers migration and minorities for The Jewish Daily Forward, Al Jazeera, and Huff Post.

The Leo Baeck Institute is hosting a book launch event at the Center for Jewish History in New York on December 10th at 6:30 pm. I will be there along with many of the book’s contributors, and historian David Sorkin will give remarks on the history of citizenship and Jewish emancipation in Europe.

A Place They Called Home is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and at bookstores all over.

And last but not least, here’s my latest blog post for The Times of Israel: Where’s the Good News About the Jews? A Report from Berlin.

What’s Next?

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The writing, editing, and proofreading are done. The hand-wringing, fretting, and kvetching are almost behind me. My co-authors, a sundry mix of descendants of German Jews spanning generations and continents, have stuck with me on an uphill path that slowly twisted towards its final destination. Together we have produced a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Our book, A Place They Called Home, is scheduled for release on December 1st and can now be pre-ordered on Amazon.

So what’s next? Maybe not much for a while. But I can’t help thinking that it’s important to build on whatever momentum comes from my stubborn pursuit to broaden the narrative of the post-Holocaust Jewish experience with Germany. I’ve tried to bring new voices to this narrative, hoping to have a modest impact on public perceptions and opinion. Few Jewish opinion leaders in the U.S. or Germany today represent my views. That’s why I’ll continue to voice my perspective, whether through writing, public speaking, or even political action.

I’m toying with the idea of creating a speakers bureau to bring a diversity of Jewish voices into German schools and communities. I’ll try to also contribute and promote more positive news coverage of Germany’s Jewish population, like the recent reports on a community initiative to rebuild the Fraenkelufetr synagogue in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, an area with a large immigrant population. And there’s no question we need more interfaith projects and initiatives. German Jews, with our history of loss and displacement, are uniquely positioned to support migrants and refugees who’ve come to Germany after fleeing their homelands.

I contemplated my next steps over a family birthday dinner on the sidewalk patio of one of my favorite restaurants this week. As you can see, Avery and Sam were very enthusiastic about whatever project I decide to launch or join next. They’re used to hearing about all my latest plans and ideas. And they’re a pretty good cheerleading squad too. My greatest hope is that my book, this blog (which is nearing its end), and next endeavors will leave a valuable legacy for my children.

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.

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.