My grandfather fled Nazi Germany – here’s why I applied to be a German citizen

Descendants of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany can reclaim their citizenship

This all started about four months ago when my cousin told me his mother’s friend read an interesting article in the Jewish Journal. The article discussed how anyone who had a German Jewish grandparent or parent who was born before or during Hitler’s reign was eligible to become a citizen of Germany (of course, this law has some other criteria to be met, but this is the gist of it). The Germans call this process “re-naturalization” because they see it as reinstating one’s rightful citizenship. It so happens that my grandfather was born in Germany and he is Jewish.

He and his parents escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. My grandfather was three years old at the time, and my great-grandparents never spoke much about how they escaped, so I cannot tell anyone too much about it. However, what we do know from the story is that they were on the last boat of Jewish refugees accepted by the United States.

“You know that something is wrong in this country when American Jews want to go back to Germany” – Friend of my mom

So given all of these facts and being my flaming liberal self, the first thing that I thought was, “If America becomes crazy enough to elect Donald Trump, and he takes this country on a whirlwind or starts a third world war, I have an escape route. This is perfect!” Plus, the application is free, so it couldn’t hurt. So, my sister, cousin and I all decided that we wanted to apply for our citizenship.

This series of photos called ‘Hopping the Border to Germany to Avoid a Fascist President’ features me with my naturalization certificate in hand. Photo credit: Stephanie Felt

Aside from escaping a possible fascist America in the future, there are other benefits to becoming a German citizen, such as a free or very inexpensive, English-instructed graduate education and the ability to stay within the European Union for more than three months. Plus, let’s face it, Germany and northern Europe have figured out that perfect balance of capitalism and socialism.

Anyway, being my impatient self, I immediately looked up the application requirements. Not to my surprise, Germany complicated this process by requiring a myriad of documents. Thankfully, my grandfather is very organized and a great record keeper, so I was confident that he had most, if not all of the required documents.

Even though Germany is very open about their history, admits their mistakes and tries to make up for them by re-naturalizing Jews like me, he was not too thrilled with the idea of his grandchildren obtaining German citizenship. Given that we had dozens of family members killed during the Holocaust and that his family, which was once very successful in Germany, was displaced because of bigotry, he rightfully still feels a lot of animosity toward his home country. To this day, he won’t watch any Holocaust-related movies. But nonetheless, he cares deeply about making his grandchildren happy, so we gathered the documents and subsequently made a trip to the Los Angeles German Consulate.

When we got there, we met with the vice consul and went through everything that my grandfather had in his big pouch of random German documents. Even though I thought that I understood my family history and appreciated it, I was wrong. This was the very moment when my 12 year-long Jewish education, my visits to concentration camps, my Jewish cultural upbringing and my trips to Israel truly came together. With the awe-stricken vice consul, we went through my family’s German birth certificates dating back to the 1800s, my great-grandmother’s Third Reich passport and my great-grandfather’s report cards (Let’s say that they were not UPenn worthy). Additionally, what really moved me was my great-grandfather’s medal and certificate for serving as a high-ranking German military officer during World War I.

Could you imagine putting your life on the line for a country that 20 years later turned around and persecuted you?

No, the answer is you couldn’t.

My great-grandmother’s Third Reich passport

After we gathered all of the proper documents, my sister, cousin and I submitted our applications. After just one month, which is a surprisingly short amount of time given the bureaucracy, we were granted our citizenship.

This process, which began as a precautionary measure to escape the potential perils of a fascist presidential candidate, turned into a personal journey. Being able to delve into my family’s history, with my grandfather by my side, really resonated with me.

“I know that the Holocaust was not OK, nor do I believe that Germany is asking for forgiveness.”

Despite this, most Jews today would view becoming re-naturalized as a betrayal to our people. I do not know a single Holocaust survivor who has chosen to become re-naturalized. I know that my grandfather and great-grandparents did not even consider it when the German government asked them about it. To many Jews, what I did is like telling the world that Germany can be forgiven for what they did to our people. But I know that the Holocaust was not OK, nor do I believe that Germany is asking for forgiveness.

I think that Germany truly wants to restore citizenship to those who would have had it by birth if Hitler never rose to power. Additionally, I believe that most Germans truly feel awful about what their country did, which can be seen in their education system today. For instance, every school-aged student must learn about tolerance and their country’s history of a lack of tolerance, which displays Germany’s strong effort to prevent a large hate movement in the future.

“In 30 years from now, are we still supposed to hang on to this animosity?”

Speaking to another aspect of the issue, at what point do we stop holding every German accountable for the actions of their ancestors over 70 years ago? While teaching English abroad, I met many young and middle-aged Germans who felt appalled by their country’s actions. I do not think that the view of this small amount of individuals represent Germany as a whole, but it goes to show that the anti-Semitic sentiment definitely has declined drastically. Thus, in 20 years from now, after another generation passes, are we still supposed to hang on to this animosity? Furthermore, I believe that anti-Semitism still exists in Germany, as it does in most of Europe, but I do not think that it necessarily is inherent in contemporary German culture.

On a personal note, I view becoming a German citizen as a way of representing the Jewish people and others who have been persecuted in the world. It is a way to stand tall and to say to the world, “Hey, I’m still here! You haven’t gotten rid of us!”. Becoming a re-naturalized German citizen goes to show that bigotry never will win.

Laughing because I have to learn German now. Photo credit: Stephanie Felt

UPenn: Penn