Once upon a time there was a young rabbi named Ulrich. He lived with his beautiful wife and their adorable baby in Heidelberg, Germany, a city of poets and composers and philosophers. Ulrich’s city was surrounded by dark forests and nestled by a sparkling river. There was even a castle. Ulrich was happy there. His congregation loved him.
That’s where the fairy tale ends, of course. Ulrich was a Jew in Germany in 1938. After Hitler took power, the idyll gave way to dispassionate ledger-keeping and list-making that categorized that time in history. According to a 1938 inventory of the contents of Ulrich’s apartment, this family had two Persian rugs, 20 neckties, seven purses, two oil paintings, 19 small silver ritual objects, one accordion, one set of skis, 48 linen napkins, 18 hand towels, 42 handkerchiefs, even an ice-cream maker. All markers of middle-class privilege. All markers of a family’s life.
What must Ulrich and Edith—the grandparents of my husband, Jonathan—have thought as Heidelberg changed around them? Starting in 1933, Germany’s Jews lost their government-service and editorial positions. Then they were expelled from the army, saw their citizenship revoked, were prohibited from marrying non-Jews, were banned from public school teaching. Yet relatively few Jews left Germany between 1933 and 1938. They were German. This was their home. The bad times would pass.
One day in 1938, Ulrich’s landlady whispered to him that he had to leave, fast. She’d seen a list on her son’s desk; Ulrich’s name was on it. The landlady’s son was in the SS. Her words convinced Ulrich that it was time to leave the country his family had called home for generations. He procured an invitation to lead High Holiday services at Temple Beth Sholom, a new synagogue in Fredericksburg, Virginia. If he could deliver a sermon in good-enough English, the congregation would hire him as its full-time rabbi. Ulrich’s English was iffy; he studied frantically as Edith packed. They left their home in early September 1938. As a farewell, the shul’s organist played Handel’s “Largo,” as it had at their wedding two years earlier:
Never has there been a shade
of a plant
more dear and lovely,
or more gentle.
Germany confiscated the 42 handkerchiefs, the baby’s chair and potty, the ice cabinet, the fruit plate, the five pans, the four platters, the six metal trays. The inventory notes that the family “acquired for emigration” a fur coat and a gramophone. Those they took with them. Such things, they thought, were needed in America.
A few weeks later, November 9, 1938, was the night of broken glass, Kristallnacht. The city’s synagogues burned. The members of Ulrich’s congregation were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.
But not Ulrich and Edith. They lived in Virginia for many years. Ulrich’s English was good enough. It got better. But he didn’t use it to tell his grandchildren any stories of life back in Heidelberg. Ulrich and Edith were always full of secrets, always full of their own kind of brokenness.
Like so many American Jews, they retired to Florida. Jonathan remembers visiting them in their hushed apartment complex when he was a small boy. He self-importantly pushed the elevator button and ran his fingers through their plush carpeting, leaving tracks.
Ulrich and Edith both died in 1973. The baby with whom they left Germany, Jonathan’s uncle, died in 2000. And now Jonathan is reclaiming a sliver of their past: He has decided to become a German citizen. He is working with The German Citizenship Project, which specializes in helping Jewish victims of Nazism and their descendants become re-naturalized in Germany.
It can be tricky to prove that you’re the spawn of a German citizen, what with the unfortunate combination of Germany’s longtime passion for paperwork and the Nazis’ penchant for burning everything in the waning days of the war. And since Germany follows the principle of jus sanguinis, blood law, not every Jew born in Germany actually was a German citizen. The German Citizenship Project is helping Jonathan move the process along—the organization helped around 150 Jews get German citizenship since 2006. (Other Jews, from Israel, the former Soviet Union, Australia, Canada, and the United States have completed the process independently.)
But Jonathan’s not applying alone; he’s applying for our daughters, too. And to my surprise, I am distressed. Not in that old-school, I-would-never-buy-a-Mercedes way: I think today’s Germans have done their fair share of self-examination and breast-beating, and they themselves weren’t the ones wearing the shiny scary boots. My feelings are more ambivalent and sorrowful.
Jonathan wanted our kids to be able to study and work in Europe as European Union passport-holders. I’m happy about that part. No, really. But still, I’m troubled. Maybe the thing that bothers me most is the notion of being the family member left behind. I’m the one apart, the one who’s not in the dominant group. Maybe the thought of them having this identity I won’t have is painful for its symbolism: Children grow up and inevitably go away. It’s hard to imagine when the younger one is still in kindergarten, but I know it’s inevitable.
Another part of my pain has to do not so much with them being German, but with me being an American. This was supposed to be the new Promised Land; American Jews have typically felt about America the way German Jews once felt about Germany. But nowadays, I’m growing increasingly concerned with the state of things. I’m not saying I see barbed wire and stone soap in our own futures; I’m not that kind of hyperbolic drama queen. But I haven’t felt this kind of despair about our country’s direction before. The joy I felt at Barack Obama’s election makes the anxiety I feel now that much more bitter. We have a government seemingly unable to reform health care (I can’t even talk to my friend in England about her adoptive country’s amazing prenatal, midwifery, and newborn care); we have Tea Partiers offering terrifying invective and Republican officials proposing laws that could have chilling effects on civil liberties. We deny science and our role in global warming. It’s not the president I’m freaked out about; it’s everyone else.
Despite the anxiety in the air, at least we can still take pleasure in the small things. Like reality TV: recently, my seven-year-old, Josie, became obsessed with Project Runway, busily sketching dresses and mimicking Heidi Klum’s double-cheek-kiss-punctuated Teutonic sign-off to the evicted designers: “Auf wiedersehen.”
At least if Josie has to leave her country, she’ll be prepared.
A thousand thanks to Michael Fadus for his generous German translation services.