End of the Line
A lost German passport—and tenuous ties to citizenship—cause a bureaucratic nightmare and a revelation about place and belonging
My great-grandparents lost their German nationality twice: First by choice, when they made aliyah, then in absentia, when they were stripped of their citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws. I don’t know if they would have wanted their descendants to accept German passports—I doubt it, since they left for Palestine in 1925 out of the belief that Germany was no home for the Jews—but we did.
The loss of my own German passport was not the result of ideology or historical injustice, and not in the least bit noble or tragic. First, I couldn’t find my naturalization certificate, which I may not have even received in the mail. And then I lost my passport.
Germany’s logic is that my passport is an effort to restore bonds broken by history. Somewhere in a bureaucratic office in Cologne is proof that, as a direct descendant of someone denied their citizenship during the Third Reich for religious or political or ethnic reasons, I am legally German. The country has mostly moved away from its tradition of citizenship based on jus sanguinis, the right of blood—a rationale still present in the state of Israel, where I was born—but my passport, even in limbo, is a lingering legacy of that policy.
Very few other proofs of my German-ness still exist. On a recent trip, I saw early 20th-century graves, smothered with ivy, in Berlin’s Weissensee cemetery, marking the lives of those who died without knowledge of how their resting place would turn on their children. We have addresses for homes that have long since been destroyed.
There is also a 1937 letter, recently translated, in which a cousin, Curt Plonsker, writes to another relative that “until the year 1932, [I] did not consider it as my misfortune to be Jewish and surely I would not feel that way today, if I could live outside my Fatherland.” A veteran, like my great-grandfather, of World War I, he writes that he “loved my Fatherland as I still do today, however, it is an unhappy love of mine, for as you, dear Mrs. Plonsker know, as a Jew I am defamed and dishonored, having to live in these times with the deepest resignation, and I am painfully sad that I could not have died in the battlefield.”
Apart from that, I am hardly alone in knowing more about how the people who lived in those homes died than how they lived. We know that my great-grandmother Ilse was unable to convince her parents to stay in Palestine when they visited her there in 1936; Siegfried and Jenny were more worried about Arab uprisings than about Hitler. We have precise details of how they were murdered: They were taken on one of those trains that had been Siegfried’s livelihood as an employee of the national railroad, leaving on Track 3 from the city of Kassel’s train station, first to Theresienstadt on Sept. 7, 1942 and then to Treblinka on Oct. 29 of the same year. We can thank the bureaucracy of genocide for giving us images of the hand-lettered ticket and car number.
Thanks to the same country’s meticulous rites of remembrance, Siegfried and Jenny have another type of grave, more proof made of stone. About 20 years ago, Kassel-born artist Horst Hoheisel began asking schoolchildren to research the lives and deaths of Kassel’s murdered Jews. Each life was described in longhand on notepaper and wrapped around a stone—much like the stones Jews place on graves in memoriam. The stones were stacked and placed under glass at the station, steps from the deportation point. When I visited that station with my mother nearly 60 years later, we could glimpse a hand-scrawled “Siegfried” on a paper wrapped around one of the rocks.
Hoheisel is most famous for suggesting that the Brandenburg Gate be blown up in memorial to the murdered Jews. In Eberswalde, Germany, he recently told the Jewish journal Habitus, he proposed a memorial to a burned synagogue, which caught fire during a storm in 1936: “All of the people in the town helped put out the fire. Two years later, the same people destroyed the synagogue.” Hoheisel’s idea of a three-meter wall, doorless and windowless, sparked outrage. “I tell them, ‘You destroyed a holy place here. It can’t come back.’ There are no Jews left in this town.”
There are, in fact, plenty of Jews now elsewhere in Germany, many of them Israelis, so during my last visit I had to convince the gate agent in Israel that I had no intention of staying in Germany despite a one-way ticket, showing her another leg to the United States. “But I could stay if I wanted to,” I mumbled uselessly. What with my disappeared passport, itself already expired, and not nearly enough German to handle getting a new one, I entered with my American and Israeli passports, without the pretense of belonging.
Germany still mostly frowns on dual or multiple citizenship, a debate relevant to the 1.6 million Turkish citizens living in the country; the Aussiedler, ethnic Germans of the Eastern bloc, have to prove their language skills to “return.” My only claim to Germanness, aside from that blood right—and lives and slaughters four generations removed—is my near-daily listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
It is also a rite of remembrance for my grandmother Rachel, whose homes were always filled with Bach. She was born in the place that became Israel, which by the time she was a teenager stamped its first passports to say they were valid anywhere but her parents’ country of birth. After the eventual opening of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, a man in Germany teased her for asking what the local coins were called. “You’ve been away from your homeland too long!” he had said, unable to hear foreignness in her German. It was her first visit.
The rest of her life was lived, joyously, in Hebrew, the language she taught to the Moroccan immigrant who would become my grandfather, when he, too, forswore everything that came before. After the war, her parents refused to visit Germany—in fact, they never went anywhere else again. “If I had wanted to be there,” said my great-grandfather Josef, known for gently sardonic aphorisms, “I would not be here.”
They were never afflicted with that chronic Jewish condition of the time, pre- and postwar refugee status. More typical was what Auden described in “Refugee Blues”: “The consul banged the table and said/ ‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’/ But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.”
Do three or more passports make you alive several times over? The only people I know who can stack their passports are Jews of my generation, who owe them to the forced and voluntary migrations of our forefathers, to American birthright citizenship or naturalization. Where they fled, we globetrot, a historical asymmetry that parallels the other privileges earlier generations earned for us.
We will never have no place to go. We will always officially exist, even without living in the place conceived as a refuge for the Jews, the one that saved my great-grandparents’ lives and my fathers’ parents too. As refuges go, it’s pretty volatile, one nation’s return being another’s usurpation.
My grandmother Rachel’s legal restoration of her Germanness was done reluctantly, for her children. Her parents had died in old age; my parents had long since moved us to the United States, another promised land. My mother’s sister told me recently she’d wanted no part in the passport business—her home was Israel. But shortly before going under for surgery to try to stop the migration of cancer through her body, my grandmother made my aunt promise she would apply for the passports for her family too.
“I think it was because it was a couple of years into the Second Intifada,” said my aunt. “We’d lost the optimism of the Oslo era.” In other words, my grandmother wanted them to have an escape plan.
On the eve of Yom Kippur in Berlin, we heard another sort of Kol Nidre: a Daniel Barenboim-led evening of Heine and Goethe poems put to song by Liszt. It is our profane version of repeating with the congregation, “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are at fault.”
Barenboim is a serial passport collector to put us all to shame. Argentine-born, raised in Israel—where my father remembers playing soccer with him in the old neighborhood—and now Berlin-based, he also has passports from Spain and from a country that doesn’t even officially exist yet, Palestine.
Here’s a story Barenboim tells about Jewishness and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a sacred work in our secular Jewish home. He once asked the great conductor Otto Klemperer, a refugee of Nazi Germany, why he had converted to Christianity. As a young man, said Klemperer, he had wanted to conduct the great St. Matthew Passion, but felt that as a Jew it was impossible.
This is a work of austere, unsparing beauty that has long attracted and occasionally repelled Jews. After the death of Jesus, the chorus recites Matthew 27:25, a passage used for centuries to justify anti-Semitism: “Sein Blut komme bei uns und unsre Kinder”—“’His blood be on us and on our children.” (Another interpretation has been that it was a curse leading to the expulsion from Jerusalem a few decades later.) Felix Mendelssohn, converted grandson of Moses, who revived St. Matthew Passion from obscurity, rarely mentioned his Jewish roots, but he could not resist telling a friend, “To think that a comedian and a Jew boy must revive the greatest Christian music for the world.”
Instead of the impossible singing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, per Psalm 137, my grandparents and great-grandparents sang the songs of a foreign land in Zion, filling their house with Bach and Mozart on a record player bought with reparations money. And then we heard the songs of a foreign land in a foreign land, to remember them.
In 1954, Amos Oz boarded a sparkling Diesel train that arrived in Israel as reparations from Germany, a transactional equation that haunted him, evoking the same trains Siegfried and Jenny and their neighbors took to the death camps. In a speech on the 40th anniversary of German-Israeli relations, he describes how he realized suddenly that the train was a gift not from the murderers, but from the murdered. He wrote:
Everything that the massacred and tortured hoped to bequeath to their children and grandchildren, all that they purchased and accrued in generations of labor, they now bequeath not to their descendants … but to me. And I don’t even know their names and I do not speak their language and I did not take part in their destiny, I who am sitting and trembling in the corner of the car that was bought with their money.
That was the way I wanted to think about my German passport. If I ever got another one.
In Frankfurt, we met with a strawberry-blonde, placid girl my age who had my grandmother Rachel’s maiden name, Plonsker. She is, to be precise, my fifth cousin. Her great-grandfather converted after marrying a Catholic, which wasn’t enough for the Nazis. Still, he survived long enough to hide his Jewishness from his son, Katharina’s grandfather. Her father discovered his Jewishness, and then the Plonskers in Israel, later in life. Katharina, whom I’d first met in Israel, was getting married the week after we met, and she was keeping her name.
All of this history didn’t seem to weigh very heavily on her, at least by her own account. She said—somewhat apologetically when I asked her, used to being asked this—that it was not so complicated for her. She thought it would be harder to be “just one” instead of both Jewish and German, that her other grandparents were too young or too old during the war. “Our parents’ generation really did this work of asking our parents what they did,” she said. “Our generation is lucky.”
She agreed to call Cologne for me to ask for a naturalization certificate, my key to a new passport. On the phone, she furrowed her brow and for the first time, seemed perplexed.
“Here is what they say,” she told me when she hung up. “No copy of the original document can ever be made. It can exist only once. You became German when you accepted it. They cannot make you a copy, but they can write to say it once existed.”
That was the end of the line in a country that’s no stranger to vanished documentation: This thing that is supposed to restore history and mend the discontinuity of hatred is both lost and found, present and absent. But the stones are still there.
A non-Jew who loves Philip Roth, making challah, and visiting High Holiday services wants to be a Jew, minus the religion