Descendants of Holocaust survivors struggle for Czech citizenship

Those wishing to reconnect with their heritage say the government in Prague must scrap a communist-era law.

3. Jiri Fuchs with his children
Holocaust survivor Jiri Fuchs, who escaped on one of the Winton trains and later changed his name to George Fuller, pictured with his children [Courtesy of the family]

Prague, Czech Republic – Growing up in the United Kingdom, David Garratt was always proud of his “exotic” Czech heritage.

But the 63-year-old film producer, whose mother Margot fled the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, is currently prevented from legally transforming into the “true Bohemian” he always dreamed he would be.

Garratt is one of a number of descendants of Holocaust survivors eager to apply for Czech citizenship.

However, he must wait for the government in Prague to scrap a communist-era law disowning him and his peers.

Michael Newman, chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) – a UK NGO – is pressing for an amendment to correct the situation.

He says that every Czech representative he has spoken with agrees the cause is just, a claim backed up by a letter of support from the deputy prime minister.

But the wait continues.

A bill was tabled in 2021 but the process came to a halt later the same year with a change of government.

And since taking power, Prime Minister Petr Fiala and his five-party centre-right coalition have been mired in crisis, from the coronavirus pandemic to the Ukraine war.

Punished for fleeing

That leaves the likes of Garratt impatiently waiting for the chance to reconnect with family roots that were ripped up 80 years ago as Western powers handed the Sudetenland – the western stretches of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany – to Hitler, in a failed bid to appease his imperialistic appetite.

In the face of the approaching storm, children were sent westwards in a panic.

Many hundreds boarded special Kindertransport trains organised by British businessman Nicholas Winton.

Arriving in the UK traumatised, many never saw their homeland or parents again.

The families are now spread across the globe, with significant numbers also in Canada, Israel and the United States. But their homeland still exerts a powerful emotional pull.

“My mother left Karlovy Vary with the coat on her back and a bit of jewellery sewn into the lining as her father was sent to Dachau,” said Garratt.

“She was so young, and arrived in the UK with no knowledge of the language, and everyone she knew dead or had left home.”

Haunted by “survivor’s guilt”, Katie Heller’s father rarely spoke of his life before he fled, but “loved his homeland very much and remained proud to be Czech to the very end of his long life”, said the 64-year-old freelance musician.

The obstacle facing Heller and other children and grandchildren of these Czech refugees is a law that was rolled out by the communists after they seized power in 1948.

Designed to punish defectors, it stripped them of citizenship. Seeking to add a further penalty, it also denied citizenship to children born outside the country unless they were registered at an embassy within a year.

The legislation was rescinded after the communist regime fell in 1989 and citizenship was restored to those that had it stripped. However, unregistered children remain unable to claim a passport.

Brexit bonus

In a half-hearted attempt to right this wrong, an amnesty to allow registration, and therefore open the way to citizenship, ran for 12 months in 2014, but few were aware of the opportunity.

Heller was among those that missed the chance, and she now desperately hopes that Prague will open another window “before I get too old”.

Some are also eyeing a potential bonus for younger generations.

On top of the urge to reconnect with their heritage, Brexit makes a European Union passport valuable for Nigel Yellen’s sons, who are in their late 20s.

“They feel that there are limitations after Brexit, and becoming a citizen of an EU country again would make a difference for them,” said the 61-year-old musician, whose father-in-law Jiri Fuchs escaped on one of the Winton trains, and became George Fuller after studying the telephone directory for a new name.

“It’s not an overriding issue but it has affected our approach. Losing your European citizenship as well as Czech feels like a double break.”

That loss is only accentuated by recent changes introduced by Germany and Austria to widen the range of descendants of Holocaust survivors eligible for a passport.

Data shows that more than 6,600 people were granted German citizenship in 2021 under these new rules.

The irony is that those that rode the Kindertransport to safety from the Sudetenland after the Nazis annexed it in 1938 are now eligible for German citizenship, but not Czech.

However, most are not tempted by this shortcut to an EU passport. Instead, they continue to hope for the chance to make a connection with their Czech heritage.

“It’s an emotional attachment,” Garratt said. “Maybe we’re looking for additional meaning in life. To feel that we’re not isolated elements but part of a continuum.”

Generous welcome

Cementing that emotional connection is now dependent on movement from the Czech government.

The AJR is pushing Prague to pass an amendment that would grant a new five-year amnesty on registering. However, progress appears to have stalled.

Fiala and his government are focused instead on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the fallout, which has seen energy prices spike and pushed inflation above 15 percent.

These difficulties have helped provoke large protests against Prague’s staunch support for Kyiv.

Ironically, the generous welcome given to Ukrainian refugees – the almost 500,000 the Czech Republic has registered is the most per capita of any country in the world – has become a particular target.

Although not connected, frustration is also rising among those waiting for amnesty for the families of those Czechs that were forced to flee more than 80 years ago.

Newman said that despite support from Czech Jewish groups and the UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust affairs, there is now “no movement at all”.

“We’ve been advised that it’s acknowledged in Prague that the current law is not right, but it seems an injustice that such a simple issue is being delayed,” said Yellen.

A government spokesman told Al Jazeera that the issue is “open” at the Ministry of Interior and that it will be “dealt with materially when preparing a future amendment to the law”.

However, he did not respond to additional queries regarding the timescale of any action.

“There is now great concern about being given the run around,” said Newman.

Source: Al Jazeera