Now that the woes of my long quest for German citizenship are behind me, I realize how fortunate I am. At the age of 52 I have become a citizen of a new country and have much to learn and look forward to about the responsibilities and benefits that go along with my new status. But lately I’ve been thinking about other German Jews from the diaspora who also want to reclaim their German citizenship, but can’t. These are people whose families fled Nazi Germany but do not qualify to have their citizenship restored.
The descendant of a Holocaust refugee is more likely to win back their German citizenship if they are German Jewish through their father rather than their mother. This is because German citizenship could only be derived from the father until 1953. My friend Wendy was initially told that she did not qualify for German citizenship because her mother, born before 1953, was German, not her father. When Wendy told a consular official that her parents were never married, she found out that an exception was made for children born out-of-wedlock!
Bess Rothenberg, whose mother was born in 1944, wasn’t so lucky. When Rothenberg learned that she did not qualify for restored citizenship, she complained that the German government was perpetuating sexism in its attempt to redress racism: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bess-rothenberg/a-german-law-rectifies-ra_b_794993.html. I find it especially ironic that a German Jew must rely on their father to reclaim their German citizenship, while traditional Jewish law confers Jewish identity through the mother.
Another sad irony is that descendants of Jews who fled Germany before Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor are ineligible for restored citizenship. Families that had the foresight to flee before January 30, 1933 are considered to have left “voluntarily.” I’ve met a few people who did not qualify for restored citizenship because their families were smart enough to get out early. Judith Kerr’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, is based on the true story of her own family’s terror over Hitler’s impending rise to power and early escape to safety.
Mary Beth Warner’s recent article, Jewish American Families Reclaim German Roots, reveals that citizenship applications from such families are on the rise. As a new German citizen, perhaps I can help others who experience delays and mishaps as I did, or are just bewildered about how to proceed. Or maybe I will lobby to strike the pre-1953 gender-based citizenship standard from German law……..that oughta keep me busy!