End of the Line
A lost German passport—and tenuous ties to citizenship—cause a bureaucratic nightmare and a revelation about place and belonging
Do three or more passports make you alive several times over? The only people I know who can stack their passports are Jews of my generation, who owe them to the forced and voluntary migrations of our forefathers, to American birthright citizenship or naturalization. Where they fled, we globetrot, a historical asymmetry that parallels the other privileges earlier generations earned for us.
We will never have no place to go. We will always officially exist, even without living in the place conceived as a refuge for the Jews, the one that saved my great-grandparents’ lives and my fathers’ parents too. As refuges go, it’s pretty volatile, one nation’s return being another’s usurpation.
My grandmother Rachel’s legal restoration of her Germanness was done reluctantly, for her children. Her parents had died in old age; my parents had long since moved us to the United States, another promised land. My mother’s sister told me recently she’d wanted no part in the passport business—her home was Israel. But shortly before going under for surgery to try to stop the migration of cancer through her body, my grandmother made my aunt promise she would apply for the passports for her family too.
“I think it was because it was a couple of years into the Second Intifada,” said my aunt. “We’d lost the optimism of the Oslo era.” In other words, my grandmother wanted them to have an escape plan.
On the eve of Yom Kippur in Berlin, we heard another sort of Kol Nidre: a Daniel Barenboim-led evening of Heine and Goethe poems put to song by Liszt. It is our profane version of repeating with the congregation, “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are at fault.”
Barenboim is a serial passport collector to put us all to shame. Argentine-born, raised in Israel—where my father remembers playing soccer with him in the old neighborhood—and now Berlin-based, he also has passports from Spain and from a country that doesn’t even officially exist yet, Palestine.
Here’s a story Barenboim tells about Jewishness and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a sacred work in our secular Jewish home. He once asked the great conductor Otto Klemperer, a refugee of Nazi Germany, why he had converted to Christianity. As a young man, said Klemperer, he had wanted to conduct the great St. Matthew Passion, but felt that as a Jew it was impossible.
This is a work of austere, unsparing beauty that has long attracted and occasionally repelled Jews. After the death of Jesus, the chorus recites Matthew 27:25, a passage used for centuries to justify anti-Semitism: “Sein Blut komme bei uns und unsre Kinder”—“’His blood be on us and on our children.” (Another interpretation has been that it was a curse leading to the expulsion from Jerusalem a few decades later.) Felix Mendelssohn, converted grandson of Moses, who revived St. Matthew Passion from obscurity, rarely mentioned his Jewish roots, but he could not resist telling a friend, “To think that a comedian and a Jew boy must revive the greatest Christian music for the world.”
Instead of the impossible singing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, per Psalm 137, my grandparents and great-grandparents sang the songs of a foreign land in Zion, filling their house with Bach and Mozart on a record player bought with reparations money. And then we heard the songs of a foreign land in a foreign land, to remember them.
In 1954, Amos Oz boarded a sparkling Diesel train that arrived in Israel as reparations from Germany, a transactional equation that haunted him, evoking the same trains Siegfried and Jenny and their neighbors took to the death camps. In a speech on the 40th anniversary of German-Israeli relations, he describes how he realized suddenly that the train was a gift not from the murderers, but from the murdered. He wrote:
Everything that the massacred and tortured hoped to bequeath to their children and grandchildren, all that they purchased and accrued in generations of labor, they now bequeath not to their descendants … but to me. And I don’t even know their names and I do not speak their language and I did not take part in their destiny, I who am sitting and trembling in the corner of the car that was bought with their money.
That was the way I wanted to think about my German passport. If I ever got another one.
In Frankfurt, we met with a strawberry-blonde, placid girl my age who had my grandmother Rachel’s maiden name, Plonsker. She is, to be precise, my fifth cousin. Her great-grandfather converted after marrying a Catholic, which wasn’t enough for the Nazis. Still, he survived long enough to hide his Jewishness from his son, Katharina’s grandfather. Her father discovered his Jewishness, and then the Plonskers in Israel, later in life. Katharina, whom I’d first met in Israel, was getting married the week after we met, and she was keeping her name.
All of this history didn’t seem to weigh very heavily on her, at least by her own account. She said—somewhat apologetically when I asked her, used to being asked this—that it was not so complicated for her. She thought it would be harder to be “just one” instead of both Jewish and German, that her other grandparents were too young or too old during the war. “Our parents’ generation really did this work of asking our parents what they did,” she said. “Our generation is lucky.”
She agreed to call Cologne for me to ask for a naturalization certificate, my key to a new passport. On the phone, she furrowed her brow and for the first time, seemed perplexed.
“Here is what they say,” she told me when she hung up. “No copy of the original document can ever be made. It can exist only once. You became German when you accepted it. They cannot make you a copy, but they can write to say it once existed.”
That was the end of the line in a country that’s no stranger to vanished documentation: This thing that is supposed to restore history and mend the discontinuity of hatred is both lost and found, present and absent. But the stones are still there.
A non-Jew who loves Philip Roth, making challah, and visiting High Holiday services wants to be a Jew, minus the religion