Reclaiming My German Citizenship

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

It was last June that my husband Brian and I completed our applications for German citizenship before moving from Bozeman, Montana to Berlin, Germany.  By reclaiming our German citizenship we hoped to come “full circle” as the descendants of German Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.  We are still waiting for the magical moment when we learn that our citizenship has been restored, but we both believe it will be worth the wait.

It was not a magical moment when we told my mother that we were moving to Germany.  The opportunity to connect with my past, become fluent in a language I fell in love with as a child, and to once again be Jewish in Germany meant nothing to her.  How could we bring her grandchildren to the place of horror and persecution from which she and my father had fled?  No answer would suffice.  She did not speak to us for six weeks.

I don’t know what it felt like for my parents and grandparents to be stripped of their German citizenship, to be stateless from 1938 until 1944, and to finally become American citizens.  My maternal grandmother seemed to remain stateless, eventually leaving America for Israel, then Switzerland, and finally going back to her beloved  Germany.  My paternal grandparents were more typical immigrants, creating their own oasis of German culture in the middle of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood (complete with apfel strudel, kartoffel salat, and lots of wurstchen).

No form of Holocaust reparation is enough, but reclaimed citizenship has more significance for me than any financial restitution our family may receive.  My children and their descendants will have opportunities that my grandparents could never have imagined.  We will have access to Germany’s universal health care system and free system of higher education.  We will automatically become citizens of the European Union which means we can live, work, and study at a university in any EU country under the same conditions as nationals.  We will not have to give up our American citizenship, nor do we want to.

I will take full ownership of my identity when I regain the citizenship that was stripped from both my parents’ families.  As a German American Jew I can embrace each of these three elements of my identity to whatever degree I wish.  Just as I have always struggled with what it means to be Jewish, I will always struggle with what it means to be German.  But I am entitled to my German citizenship, and I may soon have it.

After months of fruitless attempts to track down my citizenship application, I learned in March that the all-efficient German bureaucracy had lost it.  The application contained many documents that I had painstakingly put together to establish my German Jewish identity.  These were my personal historical building blocks that had suddenly vanished.  The official who delivered this disturbing news politely apologized and suggested I file a new application and begin the process all over again.  His cold words hit me like a stamp that says “no one cares.”

Now it is June again, our first school year in Germany is coming to an end, and my oldest son is preparing for his bar mitzvah in Berlin this fall.  Avery’s bar mitzvah will take place on the anniversary of my father’s bar mitzvah in New York City in 1942.  My son and my father will have both taken this step as immigrants, and as German American Jews who belong to a vibrant and thriving Jewish community.

I also have high hopes that the stress and frustration of trying to move my  citizenship application forward are finally behind me.  My application was eventually found and is being processed in Rathaus Schoeneberg, the place where John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.  Kennedy not only said that he was a Berliner, but that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” As we embark on our second year of living in Germany, I feel optimistic that Kennedy’s vision will become a reality for me.

Donna Swarthout came to Berlin with her family to explore her German Jewish heritage and identity and the nature of Jewish life in Germany today.  You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle:

And you can hear her reading a version of this story on NPR’s Berlin Stories:

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Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

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