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My husband and I moved our Jewish family from Montana to Berlin to teach our children about their roots. We didn’t anticipate the neo-Nazis.

Donna Swarthout
January 06, 2012
Stolpersteine in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin.(Chris Grabert/Flickr)
Stolpersteine in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin.(Chris Grabert/Flickr)

Two years ago, when my husband received an offer to teach at the John F. Kennedy School of Berlin—in the country where my parents and his maternal grandparents were born—we jumped at the chance. I had heard about the revival of Jewish life in Germany, though the scenes described in the media were usually filled with Russians and Israelis, not Americans. Waves of East European Jews came to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but American Jews kept their distance. I wanted to put myself in the cultural shoes of my family, to inhabit the world that was filled with the sounds and smells of my German Jewish parents, grandparents, and great-grandmother as we gathered around the supper table in Washington Heights when I was a child. Some of our friends and family were enthusiastic about our choice, a few were politely puzzled, and still others were downright mortified. “Germany has changed,” we said. “We want to experience what it is like to live as Jews in Germany today.”

I had also chosen to reclaim my German citizenship under a law designed to restore the rights of families who fled Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1945. I was confident that my legal right to citizenship, paired with my taste for German food, language, and culture, would ease my integration into German society. I wasn’t looking to shed my American identity, but rather to give life to a dormant part of myself.

Days before I officially became a German citizen, authorities discovered a neo-Nazi terror cell that is allegedly responsible for the murder of at least 10 people over the past decade. The message seemed clear: The land that my German Jewish parents escaped in 1938 is still not safe; it is blighted by underground networks of violent, brown-shirted skinheads who easily evade detection by government officials. In my eagerness to teach our kids about their roots, did I overlook the risks of our German Jewish adventure?


On most days, we weave ourselves into the fabric of Berlin with ease. We belong to Ohel Hachidusch, a Renewal congregation where members radiate a deep sense of pride in carrying on the tradition of Jewish life in Germany. Our oldest son recently became a bar mitzvah in Berlin’s former Jewish orphanage—the first from our family to experience this rite of passage on German soil since the Holocaust. We take advantage of Berlin’s abundant Jewish cultural offerings and savor the great bagels, spreads, and falafel that surpass what is available in our hometown of Bozeman, Mont.

And Berlin is far from Zwickau, the East German city that was home base for the three core members of the neo-Nazi gang who called themselves the National Socialist Underground. In addition to the murder of nine men of Turkish and Greek origin and a German policewoman, the Zwickau terror cell is believed to be responsible for a number of bombings and bank robberies.

But even if the staging grounds for most skinhead groups are far from our city, neo-Nazis have a visible presence here too. Last fall, the far-right National Democratic Party plastered the city streets with campaign posters that sent chills down our spines. The most horrific of which showed Udo Voigt, the party leader at the time, revving up a motorcycle alongside the slogan “Gas Geben”: Step on the Gas. Another poster showed a caricature of three ethnic minorities sitting on a flying carpet with the slogan “Guten Heimflug,” or Have a Good Flight Home.

And daily life brings regular encounters with the Holocaust. We tread on death each day as we stumble across some of the 2,950 stolpersteine in Berlin. These brass stumbling stones are mini memorials that are placed in the ground in front of the former homes of Holocaust victims. Gathering in a football huddle, the five of us stop to read each of these testimonials to lost life when we come across them on family outings. Our children learned the words ermordet, murdered, deportiert, deported, and verhaftet, arrested, long before they learned many other everyday German phrases.

As we hurry to catch the U-Bahn or S-Bahn we often come face-to-face with a plaque or memorial to the victims who were deported from our specific location. We’ve toured the Topography of Terror, Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Museum, special exhibits about Hitler, forced labor camps, and more.

We’re so saturated in reminders of this country’s evil past that we sometimes pine for America—the land of tomorrow.

With all of Germany’s impressive efforts to confront the legacy of the Holocaust, one would expect government officials to show extra sensitivity toward families who seek to reclaim part of what they lost under the Third Reich. But this has not been my experience. Perhaps it’s just that the German habit is not to smile or display any warmth when conducting business. My fully documented citizenship application was first lost, then ignored, and finally subjected to last-minute demands for further proof of my ancestry. I spent months wrangling with bureaucrats whose answers to my inquiries seemed designed to intimidate. “They are just hoping you will go away,” said some of my German Jewish friends.

Even ordinary Germans seem to enjoy wielding authority over others. Many seem to take great delight in alerting us to our daily transgressions. We’ve been scolded for petting people’s dogs, making too much noise while recycling, breaking various subway rules, and so on. I’m not used to getting behavior lectures from adults, especially when they seem so eager to put us in our place. These encounters leave me disturbed by the German propensity to follow authority rather than question it.

I feel accepted here, but how welcome am I really? I’m sure some Germans feel I don’t belong here, and that could be true. But that decision will be mine, not theirs. I am now both an American and a German citizen, with many possibilities for where to live and work. The opportunities for my children, who have also become German citizens, are even greater.

Every day I ride the trains of Berlin, stare at my fellow passengers, listen to their conversations, and wonder. I wonder if they are a mirror image of me or a descendant of those who persecuted anyone who was not a pure Aryan. This is the paradox of being a German Jew, to share the ethnic heritage of a people who committed genocide, but to also belong to one of the groups that was the target of this genocide. This paradox haunts my time in Germany but does not deter me from staying here a little longer.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle.

Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle.