A PLACE THEY CALLED HOME: RECLAIMING CITIZENSHIP. STORIES OF A NEW JEWISH RETURN TO GERMANY
Edited by Donna Swarthout
Berlinica Publishing, $19.95, 203 pages
A trend is underway that is remarkable to some: A striking increase in Jews relocating to Germany, including those reclaiming citizenship.
From 2000 through 2017, 5,437 American Jews alone regained German citizenship, joining 200,000 other Jewish residents of Germany.
The free German government has offered citizenship to those (and their descendants) who were so wrongly stripped of it by the Nazis. This policy has been embraced by Germans across their nation.
“A Place They Called Home” presents the compelling first-person stories of 12 Jewish survivors and their offspring, who have chosen to reclaim their German citizenship. Some now live in Germany.
Maya Schwayder is a Detroit-born journalist whose grandfather left Hamburg at age 18 in the 1930s. While some relatives vocalized anti-German sentiment, Maya confidently described her emotional arrival in Hamburg as perhaps “undoing Hitler’s deeds,” at least in some small way.
Today’s Germany honors the memories of murdered or expelled Jews with “Stolpersteine.” These brass memorial markers often complement stones left by respectful visitors, in the Jewish tradition. Each Stolpersteine displays the name of the victim, birthdate, and location and date of their demise (e.g., Auschwitz). In Hamburg, Maya participated in a Stolpersteine ceremony in front of her grandfather’s ancestral home.
This ” was one of the warmest and most welcoming experiences I have had in Germany,” she wrote. ” The new residents of the building opened their arms to me and to the new memorial ” Maya Schwayder remains a Berlin-based journalist.
The book’s editor, Donna Swarthout, recalls visiting her refugee grandparents in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, long a haven for German Jewish immigrants, such as Henry Kissinger and Ruth Westheimer.
Donna’s husband was offered a position teaching at the JFK School in Berlin, and so their family of five moved to the German capital. Donna had begun efforts to seek German citizenship while living in Montana and blogged about it. Though a few criticized her, most messages were supportive (“Congratulations on making the decision to return. Fifteen, twenty years from now your children will ‘ rise up and call you blessed ‘ for giving them a Berlin life and a second language”).
Donna’s three children were bar mitzvahed in Berlin, and she was appointed as a university instructor. She, too, took an emotional trip to her father’s ancestral city of Hamburg, remarking on the beauty of Germany’s largest port.
Rabbi Kevin Hale of Massachusetts comes from a family with deep German roots, including those who served in World War I.
While Rabbi Hale mourns his cousins who died in Auschwitz, he explains that “acceptance of citizenship is a covenant, a sacrament if you will. In such a covenant of love, we tie together our sacred honor.” Kevin adds that “When the word Germany is mentioned, I must claim that in some measure I am represented by that word, although to be fair when the word Israel is mentioned, the claim on me is far greater.”
Kevin writes matter-of-factly that: “Germany is no longer a place of fear.”
Ruth White is a Bay Area psychologist (a younger “Dr. Ruth”), born to Jewish escapees from Hitler’s Germany. She concluded that for German Jews “children of survivors must create their own relationship with Germans and Germany.”
Ruth and her sons are now German citizens, and became fast friends with Gerhard, a Nuremberg City Archive official who assisted in documenting her German roots. Each year, a holiday card and letter arrive from Gerhard.
Noting her parents’ early boycott of German products, Ruth writes that “I felt that Germans wanted to right this wrong. No, Germany couldn’t replace the ‘sense of place’ my parents lost in leaving their homeland, but by inviting the children of former citizens to be ‘one of us’ again, Germany was making amends.”
When visiting Nuremberg, she explored the places so precious to her parents. In the city that hosted Hitler’s immense Nazi rallies, Ruth spent a day with Gisela, a German convert to Judaism, who has led efforts to restore the Jewish cemetery in Furth.
An Israeli combat veteran asked me: How can Jews “leave the United States, the greatest country on earth, and the best home for Jews in the Diaspora, and settle in Germany, a country which destroyed a thousand years of Jewish life in Europe?”
But one of the book’s contributors posits that she “became a German citizen for my father and grandfather. The citizenship that should never have been taken from them, now returns to them.”
Another Jewish returnee states that “Living in Berlin had given me a sense of wholeness which people with less fragmented backgrounds take for granted.”
As the son of German Catholic immigrants, I am grateful for the return of Jewish life to the land of my forebears. Agree or not with the Jewish men and women who continue to recover their German citizenship, readers of the book should be pleased with the peace and completeness it has granted them.
• Herbert W. Stupp was a NYC Commissioner appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, after serving in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He is a founding trustee of the German-American Hall of Fame.