Three nights before the British elections, London was teetering in the state of anxious discomposure that had become its new normal. Soon, the Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson would win an overwhelming mandate, breaking the deadlock in Parliament and setting him up to pass his preferred Brexit option with ease. Although Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would wind up losing in a landslide rejection of his politics, he would not resign the leadership of the party, and the existential need for clarity and safe harbor felt by British Jews would not be assuaged by the outcome of the election. And on this night, the Wiener Holocaust Library, located on Russell Square, was hosting an emotionally charged event titled “My Father was a Wandering European: Triple Loyalties in Brexit Britain: British, Jewish, European.”
The collective mood inside the lecture hall was as bleak as the London weather. The audience of middle class professionals was impeccably polite. We had gathered to learn how British Jews might become German. Or Czech. Or Austrian. Or Polish. The discussion centered on the passportization of the children and grandchildren of the British Jews who had fled Germany and Nazi-occupied Central Europe in the midst of the Holocaust. The tremendous irony of the children and grandchildren of the German Jews who had fled Hitler being welcomed to Germany, now widely considered to be the heart and last great hope for placid liberal democracy in Europe, was lost on no one in the audience.
British Jewry had found itself in a situation unprecedented in modern times: caught between the twin threats of an institutionally anti-Semitic Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn, and with the looming Brexit, the loss of their European identity and rights on the other hand. The circumstances would be familiar to Jewish communities in Russia and Turkey, who live in a state of siege, a fraught political situation raging around them. But the situation feels utterly new to Britain’s Jews and, therefore, rather terrifying for some, including British descendants of German Jews. One of the speakers, Sotheby’s head of restitution in Europe, Richard Aronowitz-Mercer, mournfully exclaimed that he did not know what he had lost “until I did, which we are all about to.”
Article 116 of the German Basic Law allows for the reinstatement of German citizenship for the descendants of individuals who had had it stripped from them by Nazi edict. A representative of the German Embassy was on hand to offer advice to British citizens concerned about language requirements (answer: there are none) and other bureaucratic formalities. Many of the British Jews now filing their application with the German Embassy are the descendants of those smuggled out of Germany as part of the Kindertransport, which extracted around 10,000 children in the wake of Kristallnacht. Many had relatives killed or their entire extended family massacred by the state or the local collaborators of the nations that they are now petitioning for citizenship.
The event was organized by the antitrust lawyer Simon Albert and his friend Ruvi Ziegler, a law professor at the University of Reading.They had first began discussing the project after a casual conversation at the annual Limmud conference last year.
Born in Germany to British Jewish parents, Albert is very tall, precisely spoken, and possesses a familial warmth and a sterling career in British law that belies a gentle schlimazel nature. I first met him a decade ago when he was working for a British law firm in Paris. A history buff, he had spent the previous three years digging through historical records in order to reclaim the ancestral Czech passport for himself and half a dozen members of his extended family. Last year, Albert was naturalized (or rather renaturalized), having successfully proven that three of his grandparents had absconded from Czechoslovakia in 1939 in the midst of the occupation. During his introductory remarks, Albert enumerated the reasons British Jews would wish to retain their European rights. Some wanted to keep easy access to their property in other parts of Europe, while others want to stay in the EU for reasons of cultural identity. Albert himself is a European antitrust lawyer, and like many thousands of other British lawyers and professionals, would have found himself at some point in the near future unable to practice in his field outside the British Isles were he not able to procure another European citizenship.
As Albert and Ziegler wrote in a forthcoming white paper they coauthored on the topic:
The tone of some political commentary can sometimes evoke the stereotypically paranoid Jewish grandparent issuing frenzied warnings that ‘Jews must always keep a suitcase packed by the front door, just in case’ – and of course, ‘a Jew cannot have too many passports. Some of that might be dismissed as over- excited and the legacy of deep trauma. The serious point though is to heed the warnings about a sufficiently tragic outlook on history and politics which a thinker as perceptive as the [Jewish Historical Society of England (JHSE)]’s former president, Sir Isaiah Berlin, made clear in his writings, and to apply them to the present day.
Miri Rubin, a professor of history from Queen Mary University, in London, compared the current situation to that of Jewish communities in the early modern European, the period in which she specializes. Those communities had likewise felt themselves to be no less rooted in Europe before the pogroms that she studies had taken place.
Before the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, the German Embassy in London had reported receiving around 40 applications a year for the restoration of German citizenship. The number is now around 1,500 a year, according to the embassy, with around 5,500 such applications being filed since the Brexit vote took place. This means that some 2% of the British Jewish population of around 300,000 has requested German citizenship over the past three years. This number does not include the British Jews asking to reinstate their Polish, Austrian, Hungarian, or Czech citizenship, and no comparable statistics were provided (or likely exist) for those figures. Many of these applications were filed by so-called “Brexit Remainers,” who have a strong sense of European solidarity and are keen to retain their links to Europe.
The process is not without tremendous emotional baggage for many, however. For every British individual who has asked for their birthright German citizenship to be restored, others have refused to do so on principle. A British woman of middle age had arrived with her children and 96-year-old mother, an impeccably coiffed woman in a purple silk blouse who was born in the Weimar Republic. She informed the assembly that her mother did not want her to take part in the process. They were British now, and should show loyalty to the state, the mother instructed in a distinct German accent. The woman had applied for a passport despite the mother’s wishes.
There were also people present in the audience who were descended from German Jews but were in no way identified with the community or identity until the Brexit process had begun, at which point they had begun to reckon with their patrimony. Some portion of the much older British Sephardi community is likewise now in the midst of reclaiming Portuguese and Spanish citizenships (although Spain has recently closed the legal window for new claims).
The organizers of the event appealed for the newly minted EU-passport holders to contribute their family narratives to a new website they were launching (it is still under construction). The website seeks to create a questionnaire database of family stories for the British Jews who have taken out or attempted to procure a second passport. “When Jeremy Corbyn referred to British Zionists as having lived all of their lives in England yet having no understanding of irony or history, we knew what we were dealing with,” Albert had explained to me.
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Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.