How It Feels For a Jew To Become German
The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors reflects on taking up citizenship
My mother was teary-eyed when the woman at the consulate gave us our papers. Just like that, with one certificate each, my mother and I became German citizens. It was hard to believe that we were being reclaimed by a nation that, 70 years ago, tried to exterminate our people.
It was even harder to believe that we as Jews had given up our grudge and accepted the invitation codified through Article 116, Part 2, of Germany’s Basic Law: “Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945, were deprived of their citizenship for political, racial or religious reasons, and their descendants, shall be re-granted German citizenship on application.”
For a long time, my mother wanted only to ignore our chance to become Germans. During the several years that I pestered my mother to file for citizenship, it seemed she thought becoming German would express to the world that what happened during World War II was acceptable. To me, it meant opportunity for employment and travel in the European Union, but for her it was a choice on par with denial of the Holocaust altogether.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want anything to do with German efforts to make amends with Jews. With a check from Germany she received 40 years ago, my mother bought herself a sewing machine. It was as symbolic as it is practical: My grandmother sewed Nazi uniforms in the Lodz Ghetto as a slave laborer, and my mother sewed clothes to make a living while she founded a rape crisis center in Wisconsin.
Yet a post-Holocaust psyche permeated my childhood. I was not allowed to wear stripes because they reminded my mother of the prisoners’ clothes in the death camps. Once, when I came back from kindergarten with a temporary tattoo, she scrubbed my arm until it was gone. She would never buy a Volkswagen. My parents sought reconciliation in their own way: Through teaching the next generation about the Holocaust. My third-generation survivor friends would agree that you grow up with a sense of exceptionality. You’re taught that there are people who do not want you to exist, and so you must do all you can to prove them wrong. Your parents never miss a chance to remind you that your grandmother survived Auschwitz. You must be the best person you can so that her survival was not in vain.
But after my aunt and cousin decided to take up German citizenship, I think my mother saw how much easier it became for them to travel abroad, and she saw that it was foolish to miss out on such a privilege, symbolism aside. About a year ago, my mother began gathering the documents we would need to prove our heritage: My grandparents’ marriage certificate, my birth certificate, my driver’s license. My mother did not tell me that she decided to apply. She simply began gathering the papers, and that was that.
It still feels unnatural that I am the citizen to a country I have never visited. I have never had the chance to meet a German my age. I have no idea what I would ask, or even if I would ask about the Holocaust at all.
When we got our citizenship there was an elderly couple in line behind us at the consulate. When it was their turn to meet with the official, the man started yelling at the official behind the window. My mother wondered aloud what the problem was; our experience had been so easy. How could they have a problem with these Germans who were just so nice? But my father pointed out that it shows how hard Germans are working to treat its Jews with respect: “Your citizenship was something they returned to you,” he said. “It’s rightfully yours.”
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