British Jews claim right to German citizenship before Brexit

Britons whose ancestors’ nationality was stripped away by the Nazis reconcile their roots and gain EU passport.

Jewish Brexit
Rabbi Walter Rothschild is one of several British Jews who have claimed their right to German citizenship [Veronica Zaragovia/Al Jazeera]

Berlin, Germany – On a cold December evening, the third night of Hanukkah to be exact, Rabbi Walter Rothschild warms up the crowd at a synagogue in Berlin with a jab at Brexit, to the tune of “Let Freedom Ring”.

“God save our Brexit Land, saved now from Brussels’ hand,” he sings, while wearing a necktie of the British flag. “God help us all!” Then, he continues to play as normal with his jazz band.

The 64-year-old hails from Yorkshire, England, but he moved to Berlin in 1998 for a job with a synagogue. That didn’t work out, but he stayed on in the city. 

Over the years in the German capital, “everything was fine,” he says, “until Brexit”.

In 2016, 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union in a referendum.

Being a European doesn't mean you're not loyal to one country, it means you're loyal to a lot at the same time.

by Walter Rothschild, rabbi and musician

Rothschild earns a living as a freelance writer and rabbi and didn’t want to lose access to work in neighbouring countries.

So he looked to his family’s painful past to find a solution for this upcoming challenge.

His German-Jewish grandfather spent a short time in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp northwest of Munich, starting on November 10, 1938. 

The Nazis imprisoned many that day – right after Kristallnacht, the night of deadly violence against Jews across the country.

Upon his release from Dachau, his grandfather left with his wife, Rothschild’s grandmother, to Switzerland, and the Nazis took away his German citizenship.

“Now I’ve told you about my own trauma through my grandfather,” Rothschild says. “You want to know that if anything happens in one country, you can go to another, and being a European doesn’t mean you’re not loyal to one country – it means you’re loyal to a lot at the same time.”

Rabbi Walter Rothschild, wearing a British flag necktie, reclaimed his German citizenship in 2017 after his birth country of Britain began the process of exiting the European Union, known as Brexit [Veronica Zaragovia/Al Jazeera]
Rabbi Walter Rothschild, wearing a British flag necktie, reclaimed his German citizenship in 2017 after his birth country of Britain began the process of exiting the European Union, known as Brexit [Veronica Zaragovia/Al Jazeera]

Roughly 80 years after his grandfather fled Germany and lost his citizenship, Rothschild applied for, and received his German passport in January of 2017. His new burgundy booklet has “Europäische Union”, or European Union, written across the top. 

Both of his sisters also got their German citizenship, though they live in Britain and they’re not alone.

The Federal Office of Administration in Cologne, which handles German citizenship requests from people living outside the country, has received a “wave” of applications from the United Kingdom nationals, according to a spokesperson via email.

In 2017, it received 1,667 applications from the UK. That’s up from 684 in 2016 and from 43 applications in 2015. 

From January until October 2018, there were 1,228 applications.

The office doesn’t track whether the applicants are actually British or just living in the UK with a different nationality.

‘Inundated with applications’

German nationals and their descendants who were stripped of their nationality for political, racial or religious reasons between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 might qualify for citizenship.  

The Nazis listed names of an individual considered undesirable in the Reich Law Gazette. Having your name published in the Gazette meant losing German citizenship. 

Rothschild found his paternal grandparents’ names in the Reich Law Gazette and turned this in with his application. 

Pippa Goldschmidt, 50, has also got a new German passport. She received hers a few months ago.

Goldschmidt’s paternal grandfather arrived in London as a refugee from Germany in the late 1930s.

The Nazis also took away the citizenship of Jews living outside Germany in the early 1930s.

“When I went to the German consulate here in Edinburgh to apply for German citizenship, they said they were inundated with applications like mine,” says Goldschmidt, who lives in the Scottish capital but grew up in London.

I am not very happy living in a country that can cut itself off from its European neighbours. I think it is disastrous.

by Pippa Goldschmidt, astrophysicist and author

The astrophysicist turned author has spent extended time in Germany on writing residencies. 

“I feel at home there,” says Goldschmidt, whose father also got his German citizenship.

I don’t want to be trapped in the past. For me, the point of going to Germany is because it’s a terrific country now.”

Like Rothschild, Goldschmidt also didn’t want to lose the privileges that come with EU membership.

“The free movement of people to be able to go and live and work anywhere within the EU is such a brilliant personal right,” she says.

Goldschmidt wrote about her decision to reclaim German citizenship in a new book of essays by the descendants of Jewish Holocaust survivors who have done the same. 

“A Place They Called Home” was published earlier this month by Berlinica.

Not all the authors in the book are British, but its editor Donna Swarthout says the geographic proximity of British Jews to Germany has helped a growing number of them to reconcile Nazi Germany with today’s country.

“I think it’s really important that we speak with our own voice, that we take ownership of our narrative and that we demonstrate that we aren’t just victims,” says Swarthout, an American-German Jew based in Berlin. “We are also moving forward. And one of the ways we can do that is by becoming a German citizen and getting all of the benefits that go along with citizenship.”

Goldschmidt says she and her partner are closely watching the Brexit developments to determine if they’ll choose to spend more time in Germany than in the UK.

“I am not very happy living in a country that can cut itself off from its European neighbours,” she says. “I think it is disastrous.”

Rothschild, the jazz playing rabbi, says he too plans to enjoy EU benefits, but he’ll return to Britain one day. He just hopes it’s not anytime soon.

“I have actually kept up the membership of my home synagogue, which means that I can get buried in the cemetery there,” he says, referring to the Bradford Synagogue in Yorkshire. “So my long-term plan – hopefully as long-term as possible – is not to be buried here [in Berlin] but where my parents are or will be.”

Source: Al Jazeera