After the June 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, something new popped onto my to-do list, somewhere after Take back library books and before Book dentist appointment.
Apply for German citizenship.
My mother brought it up first over dinner one evening last autumn. Because of the referendum, she had decided that our family should avail itself of the right that Germany granted in 1949 to all those—mostly Jews—who had been stripped of their German citizenship under the Third Reich (and to their descendants): we could apply to reclaim it while keeping our current citizenship as well. Without discussing it with me, she had started her own application. “You should get yours and the children’s,” she said.
At first I was dismissive. I work every day with refugees in London, and their yearning to remain in the UK has made me vividly aware of the wonderful luck I have in being a British citizen. Who needs to gild that lily? And more, even for the most rational of us, citizenship is not just a piece of convenient paper. I was born in England and I have lived all my life in England, apart from brief stints as an au pair in Florence and a student in Massachusetts. I have never experienced this as a narrow horizon but rather as a deep, barely plumbed richness of landscape and language and culture. I love my country. I like to have that reflected in my only passport.
To be sure, the result of the referendum has made my relationship with Britain more fraught. Like the later stages of a long marriage, it is now full of difficult questions about whether I really know the object of my love and whether we have been growing apart rather than together over the years. Even so, I saw no need to add to my British citizenship. But my daughter, Clara, fastened quickly on my mother’s statement and did not forget it. For my children, Britain’s leaving the EU has more urgent implications. It is becoming a practical question about what they can do, rather than a theoretical question about who they are.
Clara is sixteen, and like many teenagers brought up in this multicultural London of the twenty-first century, looks outward in a way I never did. Her three best friends at her state school are, by background, Syrian, Chinese, and Bangladeshi. She has a French exchange friend, and they have become more than the usual reluctant pen pals; they have spent four holidays in each other’s cities, and they regularly message on WhatsApp in both French and English. And since the property boom here has made housing completely unaffordable for her generation, how can her home city be a home forever? “I don’t know where I want to live,” she says. “But no one can buy a flat in London. So it isn’t going to be here, is it?”
For all liberal Britons, the result of the referendum came as a shock, but for my daughter I could see it came more as a challenge. If the UK wants to close the door to Europe, she wants to sidle through that door before it closes. “Why shouldn’t I still have the right to work in Europe?” she said to me. “You did.” I got her point, and the resentment that rang through it. Why should the older generation (who on average voted for Brexit while the younger generation voted against it) take away what she feels to be her birthright: porous borders and the possibility of living and working in many different countries? Why would I deny her that chance?
Still, the months passed, and I didn’t download the forms. Clara couldn’t understand why I was being so slow about it. My mother couldn’t understand why I was being so slow about it. I couldn’t understand why I was being so slow about it. It was all so straightforward, wasn’t it?
Yes, it should have been straightforward. Since my mother’s application was accepted, ours would obviously follow directly down the line with German efficiency. All I had to do was print out those damn forms, put in the addresses of my grandparents’ last residence in Germany, when they lost their German citizenship, and so on, and so on.
But this is where it didn’t feel straightforward. I didn’t seem to be able to get it done. Was it just inertia about one more task to do? Did it feel like a little betrayal of Britain? Or was there something else? In the end, after Clara had downloaded and started the forms herself, leaving gaps for the information she couldn’t know, I put aside an evening in late September to get out the family folders and fill in the blanks. It was only when I reached down into those box files, with “Hamburg” and “Family” scribbled on the spines, that I realized why I had been putting it off.
My mother keeps most of our German family’s documents, but I’ve collected a bizarrely large number over the years: photocopies of passports and telegrams, a business card from someone in the Hamburg archives, a book about the Jews of Hamburg, printouts of e-mails about the location of a memorial stone, a couple of pages titled “Eva’s memories of Hamburg,” based on conversations I had had with my late grandmother and laboriously typed on an old typewriter when I was fifteen. Most of them were collected in a fit of interest years ago, then tidied away and forgotten.
So it all comes at you: birth and war and death all muddled up. You look for some simple information to put in a small box on a form—grandmother’s last residence in Germany—and you find yourself reaching through time, into darkness, into loss.
I was sitting on the floor of my study, with pieces of paper stacked up around me. I felt listless and overwhelmed by all the history that I did not want to see anymore. I went to talk to Clara. I needed to remember why I was doing this. She was lying on her bed, multitasking in teenage style—listening to music, messaging her friends, doing her homework.
“Those forms,” I said, wanting her to see what I saw when I looked into the files, the threat as well as the opportunity, wanting her to see that this was not as straightforward as she thought. “I can’t find my grandmother’s last address in Hamburg. It’s confusing….” I held out one of the many documents I had about the past. “I guess it would be this address, where my great-grandparents were living at the start of the war. But were they living there then? I know they were sent to Theresienstadt, but not until 1942. Then to Treblinka. They arrived in Treblinka on September 28, 1942.”
My daughter looked at me, and I looked at her, as the significance of the date penetrated our minds. The previous day’s date. Exactly seventy-five years ago, my great-grandparents had arrived at Treblinka. Exactly seventy-five years after their deaths, we were seeking to regain our German nationality.
I left the piece of paper on her bed and went downstairs to make dinner. We didn’t talk about it any more that day. The forms got put aside again. Of course there are always dinners to make, piano practice to oversee, the job to go to, laundry to put away. I’ll get back to it on the weekend, I promised my daughter.
It was a journey taken by so many Jews, the journey my great-grandparents took seventy-five years ago. At the start of the war, their children, including my grandmother, had already fled Germany. Mathias and Clementine Stein had been left behind. At sixty-two and fifty-eight years old, these old Jews, a quiet housewife and a retired teacher who was also a decorated World War I veteran, were not welcome in any country. In 1942 the transports began of elderly Jews from Hamburg to Theresienstadt. Mathias and Clementine went with another 664 Jews first to a square outside a school building, where they were registered and listed, then in trucks to the railway station, and then on the train to Theresienstadt.
It was not a death camp, but it was horribly overcrowded, and in September of that year four thousand inmates died.* And then the death camps had begun to operate. Together with 2,002 other Jews, Mathias and Clementine left Theresienstadt on a transport on September 26, 1942. The archive of Yad Vashem has it set down quite clearly:
On the day of the transport, the inmates were marched or taken by truck to the Bauschowitz (Bohusovice) train station, some 3km outside the ghetto, where they were loaded onto the railway cars that were waiting…. Some of the sick and the elderly inmates would occasionally die on the way to the train station, and would still be loaded into the cars in order to fill the headcount quota for transport.
From Theresienstadt, the train presumably went north to Dresden, and then east…finally stopping at the train tracks inside the Treblinka camp.
Mathias and Clementine were numbers 674 and 675 on the train: “Of the 2,004 on board, not a single person is known to have survived.”
They may have died before they got on the train. They may have died on the train. They may have died in the gas chambers at Treblinka, finally separated in death, as the Yad Vashem archive describes:
Men and women were separated…. The women and children were made to undress in a barrack, and the women’s hair was cut. Naked, they were forced to leave the barrack and enter the “pipe”—a narrow, fenced-in, camouflaged path that led to the gas chambers. After the victims were locked into the chambers, the engine was started and poison gas poured in.
One of the few survivors of Treblinka, Hershl Sperling, has left his testimony of those deaths with the Holocaust Research Project:
After a few seconds, uncanny, horrifying screams are heard through the walls. These screams go up to heaven, demanding revenge. The screaming becomes weaker and weaker, finally dying away. At last everything is completely silent.
When I was a child, this was still a Germany in living memory. But it is the Germany of seventy-five years ago, not of today.
I need to remember this. I have always been scornful of Jews who play up their victimhood. In fact, my family were among the lucky ones, since although my mother’s maternal grandparents were killed, all four of their children left in time—three boys to Palestine and Eva, my grandmother, to London to work as a maid for a family in Blackheath in 1939.
My grandfather, Georg, had a narrower escape. As well as being Jewish, he was a Communist dissident, and in the summer of 1933 he was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured in Fuhlsbüttel prison in Hamburg. He was released from prison in 1936 and went first to Holland, then to Prague. He continued to work with the Communist Party, and when the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia he went into hiding for four weeks and finally crossed the border into Poland, smuggled in a coal wagon. He presented himself at the British consulate in Kraków with only the clothes he stood up in, but in May 1939 managed to get a document permitting him to travel to the UK on the condition that he was a “transmigrant” who must emigrate elsewhere and must not try to find employment in Britain.
Eva and Georg had known each other a little in Hamburg, and they met again on the steps of the National Gallery in 1939. Eva was nineteen and working as a maid for a family that didn’t give her enough to eat and sexually harassed her. Georg was thirty-two and had been in prison or on the run for six years. They married in May 1940. Would they have married if they had not met like that, isolated in a country that showed them only a reluctant toleration, and terrified for the fate of the parents they had left behind?
Just after their marriage, they were interned as enemy aliens, sent to separate men’s and women’s camps. But this was no Theresienstadt; this was decent, if cold and overcrowded, accommodation on the Isle of Man, where Eva remembered reading Gone with the Wind and P.G. Wodehouse to practice her English. But I wonder what fear they experienced, not knowing when they could be released and live together, and if they ever would.
Still, a year later they were out and living in London. Despite not having the right to work, Georg was employed as a bookkeeper in the Jewish community, and Eva quickly got pregnant. She sent her parents a telegram via the Red Cross to tell them that she was expecting a baby, and the very last communication she had from them, in January 1942, was that they were looking forward to its arrival. After that, only silence. In 1946 she found out that they had been “sent to the East” from Theresienstadt, and began to blame herself and her brothers for not managing to bring them to safety.
My mother spoke only German for the first years of her life, since Eva and Georg thought until 1945 that they would be going back to Germany. But then, as the camps were opened and the corpses were seen, they realized there was no going back. In 1945 the British government gave “transmigrants” like my grandfather the right to stay in the UK. In 1949 Eva and Georg were released from their precarious situation and given British citizenship. They looked forward. They worked, they brought up their children, and they saw their grandchildren born.
Did they ever feel British? I never asked them. I doubt they would have said yes. Jews who arrived in the UK during the war were given a leaflet by the British Board of Jewish Deputies admonishing them to abide by British customs and never to speak loudly in public. They always knew that their too-German voices could disturb the British. My grandmother sometimes told us stories from the past and could be persuaded to get out her old photograph album from childhood. “So many ghosts,” she would say as she closed it. My grandfather had no photo albums. He rarely spoke about his past.
It is typical for Jews to tie their musings on this kind of family history to their feelings about anti-Semitism today or the need for the state of Israel. But I don’t think the lessons of the past are just about Jewishness. My grandparents passed through the major traumas of the twentieth century: the Holocaust, yes, and also the realization of what you become without the protection of the state—a nonhuman, a pariah.
Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay “We Refugees”:
Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings. The kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.
Before the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention was conceived, my grandparents knew what it was to be on the run for safety, entirely dependent on the kindness, or otherwise, of strangers. Without the protection and recognition of citizenship, Arendt understood, we struggle for humanity. As she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “A man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow man.”
Eleven years ago I set up a charity that works with women seeking asylum in the UK. I see all the same stories being repeated. The refugees I work with don’t have the right to work, they are exploited, they live in limbo, they wait years for citizenship, they are detained, and they deal with all of that as they try to move on from the trauma they are fleeing. There is no Holocaust now, but there are wars and oppressions that may bear as harshly on the individual survivor, and there are also private oppressions—trafficking, violence in the home—that drive people across borders and whose scars may be as great and more hidden.
This isn’t getting any better. It is getting worse. What Arendt knew about the fate of those without states to protect them is still happening in many places, as individuals are trapped at borders, forced into detention centers, left to rot in refugee camps or beg on the streets of European cities. The Refugee Convention is paid only lip service, set aside constantly for reasons of security or pragmatism.
In these circumstances, I feel acutely the futility of my work. I go back to Arendt again, constantly mining the past for a guide to the present. “No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony,” she wrote,
than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as “inalienable” those human rights, which are enjoyed by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves.
I suppose Arendt would see me as a well-meaning idealist. What else can I be? I will still stubbornly insist on people’s inalienable rights, though I know they are everywhere under attack.
And this is what scared me about Brexit: not just the economic prospects, but the feelings that seemed to underlie it—that we are a country that wants to close its doors and turn away from the needs of those on our borders. I finally had a conversation with my mother in which I asked her why she had decided to take the step of getting her German citizenship, and found that for her it is the xenophobia, once hidden under British politeness, that has now become unapologetic. Her close friend and neighbor has been ranting about how it is time to end Britain’s weakness in letting in migrants. “Would you prefer that people like me had never come in?” she asked, and he turned his back on her. She is afraid for the next generation and wants to give them whatever insurance she can.
Indeed, there is a darkness now in Britain that was hidden before, and is now a visible stain. A few days after I started the application for German citizenship, I read a comment on the website of The Times that had gotten past the moderator in which a reader called for illegal migrants to the UK to be put into gas chambers. No doubt one can hear similar things in Germany today. The surprising gains for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party in the last election sent a shudder through observers, but it is still clear that there are so many in Germany, including Angela Merkel, who are determined to stand up for the rights of refugees. Her motives in opening the border to Syrian refugees in 2015 may be complex, but as people came forward at train stations to welcome the new arrivals, you could see that the desire to confront and move on from the past runs very deeply through Germany.
Seventy-five years is a long time, after all. I get the forms out again, fill in the final details, and make a date to go down to the German embassy to deliver them. Yes, my daughter is right to want to be German as well as British. It’s good to see her meeting the challenges of her time, remaining optimistic. If I want her to retain a knowledge of the past, it is not so that she can intone “never again” at Holocaust memorial services while keeping her eyes closed to the present. It’s so that she can see what happens when we deny the humanity of any individual, stateless or citizen. But she can learn that anywhere. I’ve done the forms now. We are planning our summer holiday in Germany next year.