End of the Line
A lost German passport—and tenuous ties to citizenship—cause a bureaucratic nightmare and a revelation about place and belonging
My great-grandparents lost their German nationality twice: First by choice, when they made aliyah, then in absentia, when they were stripped of their citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws. I don’t know if they would have wanted their descendants to accept German passports—I doubt it, since they left for Palestine in 1925 out of the belief that Germany was no home for the Jews—but we did.
The loss of my own German passport was not the result of ideology or historical injustice, and not in the least bit noble or tragic. First, I couldn’t find my naturalization certificate, which I may not have even received in the mail. And then I lost my passport.
Germany’s logic is that my passport is an effort to restore bonds broken by history. Somewhere in a bureaucratic office in Cologne is proof that, as a direct descendant of someone denied their citizenship during the Third Reich for religious or political or ethnic reasons, I am legally German. The country has mostly moved away from its tradition of citizenship based on jus sanguinis, the right of blood—a rationale still present in the state of Israel, where I was born—but my passport, even in limbo, is a lingering legacy of that policy.
Very few other proofs of my German-ness still exist. On a recent trip, I saw early 20th-century graves, smothered with ivy, in Berlin’s Weissensee cemetery, marking the lives of those who died without knowledge of how their resting place would turn on their children. We have addresses for homes that have long since been destroyed.
There is also a 1937 letter, recently translated, in which a cousin, Curt Plonsker, writes to another relative that “until the year 1932, [I] did not consider it as my misfortune to be Jewish and surely I would not feel that way today, if I could live outside my Fatherland.” A veteran, like my great-grandfather, of World War I, he writes that he “loved my Fatherland as I still do today, however, it is an unhappy love of mine, for as you, dear Mrs. Plonsker know, as a Jew I am defamed and dishonored, having to live in these times with the deepest resignation, and I am painfully sad that I could not have died in the battlefield.”
Apart from that, I am hardly alone in knowing more about how the people who lived in those homes died than how they lived. We know that my great-grandmother Ilse was unable to convince her parents to stay in Palestine when they visited her there in 1936; Siegfried and Jenny were more worried about Arab uprisings than about Hitler. We have precise details of how they were murdered: They were taken on one of those trains that had been Siegfried’s livelihood as an employee of the national railroad, leaving on Track 3 from the city of Kassel’s train station, first to Theresienstadt on Sept. 7, 1942 and then to Treblinka on Oct. 29 of the same year. We can thank the bureaucracy of genocide for giving us images of the hand-lettered ticket and car number.
Thanks to the same country’s meticulous rites of remembrance, Siegfried and Jenny have another type of grave, more proof made of stone. About 20 years ago, Kassel-born artist Horst Hoheisel began asking schoolchildren to research the lives and deaths of Kassel’s murdered Jews. Each life was described in longhand on notepaper and wrapped around a stone—much like the stones Jews place on graves in memoriam. The stones were stacked and placed under glass at the station, steps from the deportation point. When I visited that station with my mother nearly 60 years later, we could glimpse a hand-scrawled “Siegfried” on a paper wrapped around one of the rocks.
Hoheisel is most famous for suggesting that the Brandenburg Gate be blown up in memorial to the murdered Jews. In Eberswalde, Germany, he recently told the Jewish journal Habitus, he proposed a memorial to a burned synagogue, which caught fire during a storm in 1936: “All of the people in the town helped put out the fire. Two years later, the same people destroyed the synagogue.” Hoheisel’s idea of a three-meter wall, doorless and windowless, sparked outrage. “I tell them, ‘You destroyed a holy place here. It can’t come back.’ There are no Jews left in this town.”
There are, in fact, plenty of Jews now elsewhere in Germany, many of them Israelis, so during my last visit I had to convince the gate agent in Israel that I had no intention of staying in Germany despite a one-way ticket, showing her another leg to the United States. “But I could stay if I wanted to,” I mumbled uselessly. What with my disappeared passport, itself already expired, and not nearly enough German to handle getting a new one, I entered with my American and Israeli passports, without the pretense of belonging.
Germany still mostly frowns on dual or multiple citizenship, a debate relevant to the 1.6 million Turkish citizens living in the country; the Aussiedler, ethnic Germans of the Eastern bloc, have to prove their language skills to “return.” My only claim to Germanness, aside from that blood right—and lives and slaughters four generations removed—is my near-daily listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
It is also a rite of remembrance for my grandmother Rachel, whose homes were always filled with Bach. She was born in the place that became Israel, which by the time she was a teenager stamped its first passports to say they were valid anywhere but her parents’ country of birth. After the eventual opening of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, a man in Germany teased her for asking what the local coins were called. “You’ve been away from your homeland too long!” he had said, unable to hear foreignness in her German. It was her first visit.
The rest of her life was lived, joyously, in Hebrew, the language she taught to the Moroccan immigrant who would become my grandfather, when he, too, forswore everything that came before. After the war, her parents refused to visit Germany—in fact, they never went anywhere else again. “If I had wanted to be there,” said my great-grandfather Josef, known for gently sardonic aphorisms, “I would not be here.”
They were never afflicted with that chronic Jewish condition of the time, pre- and postwar refugee status. More typical was what Auden described in “Refugee Blues”: “The consul banged the table and said/ ‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’/ But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.”
A non-Jew who loves Philip Roth, making challah, and visiting High Holiday services wants to be a Jew, minus the religion