Although filling out the forms to reinstate my German citizenship was a simple process, what followed were many months of intense soul searching. How could I ever forgive Germany for the atrocities they perpetrated on millions of people, for depriving my family of their rights, property, and, in many cases, their lives?
As a young adult, it used to amaze me that some Jews actually returned to Germany after the war, like Ernst Cramer, a childhood friend of my father’s. Like my father, Mr. Cramer fled the Nazis as a young adult, emigrated to America and served in the U.S. Army, but in 1950 returned to live in Germany. It floored me. But as the years went by; my views matured. I remember as a small child wondering why Jews would return to countries after pogroms, until I realized two things. First there were no other places that wanted Jews and secondly there is an eternal optimism that bad things won’t happen again. Just look how people keep on rebuilding parts of California after each earthquake, or rebuilding after hurricanes and tornadoes, or even rebuilding the area where I live after 9/11. Although most of the 200,000 Jews living in Germany today are descendants of displaced Polish Jews or Russians who immigrated after the Wall came down, a few, like my father’s friend, could still remember what life was like for Jews before the Nazis came to power in Germany. These are the stories that were also told to me at home.
American baby boomers were taught to dislike anything German after the war. Those black and white movies portrayed the murderous and treacherous horror of the Nazi regime on Jews, as well as prisoners of war. We weren’t shown many wars depicting the crimes that Stalin and others committed during the war. Germany became known as a vanquished country, with war crimes stereotypes until Hogan’s Heroes came on the air. Then the Germans were turned into cuddly bumbling fools who “knew nothing” like Sergeant Schultz or easily bamboozled pompous asses like Colonel Klink. The Germans were now our ally; it was now okay to like Germans up to a point.
I began separating German culture, language, food, and pre-Hitler German history, from the horrors of the Nazi period. I realized that my German stereotypes were not the same as others. I also began to separate the Nazi years and Nazi ideology from the rest of Germany’s history and culture. In my mind’s eye people like my Oma and Opa (grandparents), were urban, educated, loving, cosmopolitan people, even though they were from Bavaria. Even if my father did wear lederhosen on the way to Dachau, the image in my mind was not that of an overweight pork-eating man with a funny hat, leather shorts and a beer mug in his hand singing racist songs. The German language that I heard at home was tempered with a softer Jewish accent. It didn’t sound like the shrill screams of Adolf giving one of his speeches. It was a secret language, (sort of like Hebrew), that my family was the only one of the block who understood it.
You also have to remember that my family would have never left Germany if Hitler didn’t come to power. Unlike the previous generation of Jews (those like my great grandparents Gerson and Sophie) who were fleeing pogroms, conscription, discrimination and a hard way of live, my family was living in a cosmopolitan culture where Jews were full citizens since 1871. They were middle class Germans and had many wonderful memories of their childhood, before the Nazis ruined all of that. They came to America as grateful refugees, who weren’t welcomed with open arms by Christians or Jews alike in many cases. They weren’t looking for sidewalks paved of gold; they just wanted a place to survive. They were grateful that our country took them in, but it was as refugees not immigrants; unlike previous waves of American immigration.
German cuisine was also part of my life. I love eating Lebkuchen on Chanukah (Christmas spice cookies) and I buy them throughout the year. I will travel uptown to buy Leberkaese and Weisswurst and prefer hearty breads that remind me of pumpernickel or Hutzelbrot. I got through a milk strike as a young child by drinking Himbeerwasser (Raspberry flavored water) and the first fancy meal that I was able to cook was Wienerschnitzel. Every week I make cucumber salad to my mother’s recipe and eat pickled red cabbage with hot dogs more often than I probably should. Even my pickles are more of a German variety than a sour dill or kosher pickle.
By the 1980’s many Jews began removing prohibitions from purchasing German items and began driving BMW’s or Volkswagens; the link between Germany and Hitler began to break. Few people my age even knew that the Volkswagen was one of Hitler’s projects.
But I needed a better rationalization than cuisine to becoming a dual citizen. So I had to put the Nazi era into a world-wide historical perspective. For thousands of years Jews have been persecuted, killed and banished into exile throughout Europe. As we say each year on Passover, in every generation someone arose to attack us. Killing Jews was not just a Nazi phenomena occurring in the 1930-1940’s. There were other German periods of anti-Semitism, and there were also many other countries involved in killing Jews. One must also consider the Crusades, Inquisition, attacks on Jews during the Bubonic Plague, and pogroms which occurred throughout Europe. All now have citizens who hold their heads high with national pride. The Nazis may have perfected the art of genocide; but people have loved to kill minority groups such as witches, homosexuals, people of different religious backgrounds, and especially Jews, throughout western Christian civilization.
Ironically, my family migrated to Germany over the centuries in order to flee other country’s persecution. Part of my maternal grandmother’s family was originally Sephardic Jews who moved westward from Spain after the Inquisition of 1492. I do not think that it was a mere coincidence that Columbus’s first voyage occurred the same years as the start of the Inquisition in 1492. Jews were fleeing Western Europe and were looking for any nook and cranny in this world that would let them live in peace. In the early 1500’s, a group of Portuguese Sephardic Jews fled to Recife which was the northeastern section of current day Brazil, and lived there until the Inquisition followed them to the New World. The Inquisition not only sought to find secret or “closeted” Jews such as the Marranos, but also attacked newly converted Jews. By the end of that century, these new Christians were being arrested and sent back to Portugal. In 1630, the Dutch occupied Recife and the Jews and new Christians were able to live openly until 1645. That is when the Portuguese and Brazilians started a war which defeated the Dutch and brought back the Inquisition for the Jewish inhabitants. In 1654, twenty three Jewish men, women and children fled Recife and looked for another Dutch port to find a place to live, and after being robbed in Dutch Jamaica by pirates, they made their way to New Amsterdam on the Saint Catherine ship.
When they landed in New Amsterdam without any wealth or proper documents, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial governor, did not accept them with open arms; but instead tried to expel them once again. The Sephardic Jewish refugees petitioned the Jews back in Holland who pled their case to the corporation that controlled the New World colony. It should be noted that Jews were able to invest and participate in the governance of the Dutch West India Company. Even a few rich Ashkenazi Dutch Jews on the ship Peartree were given legal documents to immigrate to New Amsterdam arriving one month earlier than these refugees. In April 1655, the Dutch West India Company granted the Sephardic Jews the right to stay in New Amsterdam and Peter Stuyvesant had to find more traditional ways to discriminate against the Jews. We have much to be grateful to the Dutch Laws and practices for America’s freedom of religion. But Jews could not serve in the military and had to pay a special tax for others to protect them. On November 5, 1655 Asser Levy and Joseph Barsimon were able to get this changed. So then Peter Stuyvesant refused to issue trade permits to Jews. Once again, the Dutch West India Corporation reversed Stuyvesant’s orders, but he still refused Jews from holding public office, opening a retail shop or establishing a synagogue. By European standards, New Amsterdam (and then New York City) offered a better life than the typical ghetto or shetl in Eastern Europe, but it was not easy being a Jew in any Christian region, including the early American colonies.
If you ever looked closely at the prayers that we use during the High Holidays, you will notice how many were written by Jews who were tortured and killed in places like the massacre in York England in 1189 or the massacre in the Rhineland of 1096, or in Mainz (Mayence). Being a Jew was just another name for being a perpetual victim. Jews were “wandering” from country to country for a good reason. They were always being persecuted by their Christian neighbors on good days, and were being wiped out or raped in pogroms on bad days. The Nazis elevated the art of extermination on a wider scale than ever before, but they were not the first people to make their regions Juden-frei (free of Jews).
And while America claims that Colonists such as the Pilgrims or Puritans came across the Atlantic Ocean to enjoy religious freedom, that didn’t mean that they were tolerant towards Jews. Those colonies formed for religious reasons were quite hateful to non-believers. The Puritans turned New England into a very inhospitable place for Quakers, Lutherans, Catholic as well as Jews. And even New Amsterdam, which was founded on Dutch laws guaranteeing a real freedom of religion, had anti-Semitic episodes. The 1654 story of the Sephardic Jews fleeing from Brazil gives a good example of how New Amsterdam’s Governor Stuyvesant felt towards Jewish refugees. Yet we can still be proud of our country and how far we have come from these earlier darker days.
Later on, America became one of the most tolerant countries for the Jews. Although discrimination diminished, it nevertheless legally continued to exist even up to after my birth in New York City. In Germany, Jews were given full citizenship in 1871 (even earlier in several provinces). But Anti-Semitism and segregation were legal in America all the up until the Civil Rights Laws of the 1960’s. It was hard for Americans to complain about the early Nazi laws of discrimination, when people of African descent were legally segregated and couldn’t purchase property or even use the same public toilets or even hotels or even think of applying for certain jobs or schools. This included northern states, but was especially prevalent in the South. Jews in America during the same period were also legally restricted from many hotels, jobs, and neighborhoods. While the early Nazi discrimination laws took away many of the rights that Jews obtained in Germany, the loss of rights were not that different from what the rest of the world offered Jews. That may be the real answer as to why America and the rest of the world did not react strongly to the Anti-Semitic discrimination laws of the Nazis from 1933-1938. They were also discriminating against Jews; albeit to a lesser degree. After my father was released from Dachau and came to America, he joined the U.S. Army and had to go down South for basic training. While in Mississippi he saw many familiar discriminatory practices. But instead of targeting Jews, we were discriminating against and persecuting African Americans. America also has parts of its history that were shameful.
We must remember the Africans who were transported here against their will are also a blight on our country’s history. These people, who were not only non-Christians or white, also faced hardships and death. But most of today’s Americans, like today’s Germans can hold their heads high because they have condemned those hateful ideologies and practices of the past, and made various sorts of restitution for the past crimes. Most countries have periods in their history that they would like to forget or have already forgotten.
Even in my lifetime and in New York City, the government was developing urban renewal sites for either white or colored people. The reason why the Catskills became a Jewish resort area was because Jews couldn’t stay at other resorts. My parents had a hard time finding a place for their honeymoon since they wanted to go skiing in Vermont and there were not that many lodges that didn’t have anti-Semitic restrictions. So they found a small lodge called the Sleepers that was not really a honeymooner’s dream resort. My mother still always tells the story about the snow coming in through the bedroom window on to the bed when she remembers her honeymoon.
Not only did the Germans fail to strongly complain in 1933 against discrimination and persecution of Jews, homosexuals, communists, political objectors, etc. but the world stood by in relative silence. We focus on Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement from 1936-38, but we never ask why Germany and America and the rest of the world didn’t react when Dachau was opened in 1933 and the homosexual gathering places were closed down the same week. My own grandfather saw what was happening in March of 1933 when he fled to France, so I find it hard to believe that the world didn’t know. Germany, America and the rest of the world failed several tests that Hitler used to see if he could get away with the Final Solution. How different would things have been if the world took in refugees from the St. Louis, or refused to go to the Olympics in 1936 or boycotted the Nazi regime starting in 1933 for what the SA was doing to its own people? Can we really only blame only the Germans for not standing up to the Nazi Regime in the earlier years?
I believe that America is following a path of expanding human and civil rights for all its inhabitants, and today’s right-wing Americans who hate gays, immigrants, African Americans, Asians, feminists, etc. are just as misguided as the typical German during the Nazi years. The Founders concept that “all men being created equal” now includes women, people of color, and of all economic classes. We must remember that the indigenous Native American population and their culture were considered expendable in the creation of our American democracy. They also had their “Trail of Tears” and many of their treaties broken by our ancestors.
During the nineteenth century, the second most spoken language in America was German. Most Americans are familiar with the role played by General Lafayette of France in the American Revolutionary War, but how many know that Baron Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia served as inspector general of the Continental Army, eventually becoming George Washington’s chief of staff. Germany has a longer history than just the Nazi era from 1933-1945. German immigrants have contributed greatly to America and there is much of German culture that is highly praiseworthy. Germany was one of the most civilized western nations in the arts, music, sciences, and yes, Jewish theology.
So choosing one’s country solely on how they treated their Jewish (or minority population) during a particular era was not the criterion that I used to decide if I would become a dual citizen. Germans should be proud that they granted Jews full civil rights by 1871 and that the Weimar government prior to the Third Reich, had a civilized attitude not only to Jews, but to sexual minorities as well. I am proud that two of America’s Jewish Movements started in Germany. Both the Reform Movement and the Modern Orthodox Movements can directly trace their origins to Germany. During the early nineteenth century, German rabbis debated Judaism’s relationship to the modern world and were developing interpretations and practices that would cross the Atlantic. The Jewish culture of pre-war Germany was quite similar to how my parents brought me up. Following World War II, Jewish life has returned to Germany, albeit in a different form. The city of Augsburg, my father’s hometown restored its pre-war synagogue. Munich, where his father and grandparents lived, now has two synagogues. Many things are now similar to the way things were before the Nazis. Today’s young Germans should know about its pre-war and post-war Jewish history, and be proud of it.
At that same time that German Judaism was flourishing, Berlin was the center of European avant-garde society. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Jewish social scientist pioneering in the field of sexuality (around the time of the birth of Alfred Kinsey), is the real founder of the Modern Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Rights Movement. This is about 70 years before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. He started a petition drive and Movement to repeal the Sodomy Laws (Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code) in 1897. He was even able to get the Law Committee of the Reichstag to approve a vote to repeal the law all together. But the Nazis came into power and that was the end of his Movement and his Institute to embrace the full spectrum of sexual orientations and remove the stigmas involved with homosexuality. I learned to be proud of the fact that the modern Jewish and LGBT movements started in Germany and were transported to America for safe-keeping. These are things that the German Nazis and America’s neo-Nazis may deplore, but I think that young Germans should know these facts to regain pride in their history. When I was in college, all of America’s 50 states criminalized homosexual relations, while Germany repealed its Sodomy Laws. It took our Supreme Court until 2003 to declare such laws unconstitutional. Today I am still a second class citizen in America, with no fundamental right to get married or have equal treatment in taxation, or immigration, or inheritance, or military issues, while Germany and even Israel is way ahead of us. But I am still a proud American in spite of homophobic laws and I am also proud to be a German where the discrimination is much less.
In the past, Henry Kissinger, (who came from Fuerth, suburb of Nurnberg, and attended the same Beth Hillel youth group with my mother) and Ruth Westheimer (who came to America and befriended my father’s cousin), both marched as an American of German descent in the annual Steuben Day Parade in New York. If the former Secretary of State and a famous sex therapist could be proud of their German heritage, maybe the time has to regain a sense of pride in Germany.
In 2008, I decided to attend the Steuben Day Parade in Manhattan as part of German-American Friendship Month. Feeling a bit uncomfortable at first when I saw all of the flags and people dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, it took a while until my emotions eased. The thought passed my mind that if Hitler had never come to power, that I might be wearing lederhosen too. So I found a place where I felt comfortable to watch the events… in front of Temple Emanuel. Where else should a Jewish German stand? I knew that Temple Emanuel was founded by a group of early Jewish German immigrants in 1845.
A bit later I wondered, why not put together a Jewish contingent to remember Jewish Germans contributions to America for the next year’s parade. So I emailed the Parade Committee to ask if the idea was possible. Not only was it possible, but the organizer of the parade, thought it was a wonderful idea. But when we checked, I saw that the 2009 Parade fell out on Rosh Hashanah… so much for that idea. But that coincidence only falls out once in about 20 years, so in 2010 I hope to participate some way in the parade. For 2009 I decided to conduct a Spaziergang at NYU with young Germans to discuss my becoming a German in an unofficial and informal walk around the Village as part of the German-American Friendship Month. In 2010 the Parade was to fall on Yom Kippur, but the German Parade Committee asked to have the date changed, so I hope to have a Jewish Contingent march in the German-American Steuben Parade on September 25, 2010.
The present generation of Germans did nothing to hurt my family or the Jews living in their country. Germany has been a steady ally of Israel and this generation has been brought up to cherish diversity and fight anti-Semitism. I cannot blame this generation for the horrors of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. The time has come to try to heal these wounds and I would like to participate in that process. Progressive German politicians fought hard to pass the legislation that re-instated citizenship to Holocaust Survivors and their children as part of their notion of restitution. I felt that if “Second Generationers” like me failed to avail themselves of this newly restored right, it would be like refusing to accept someone’s apology. That would not be very Jewish or Christian of me to do. If one tries to make amends and atone for past sins I believe we should accept it and move forwards to a more loving future. I view becoming a German as a spiritual way of healing the wounds of the past. Additionally, by letting go of the anger and hatred, I feel better about myself. Again, I think that this is an important tenet of both Jewish and Christian philosophies.
I also became a German citizen out of respect to my Opa; the little Jew who left Germany after his family had lived there for over 400 years. He fought in World War I on the German side and always wanted me to speak German and learn more about pre-Hitler Germany. He had to give up his citizenship when he fled to France after being on a list to be killed by the Nazis in March 1933. He fought for years after World War II to reclaim what was his and this is just one more piece of restitution. I think that my Opa would have wanted me to do this; just as I think he would be happy to know that the Torah that he brought to America was returned by me to Munich for Congregation Beth Shalom, a new Liberal Synagogue to thrive. Opa hated the Nazis from the early 1930’s and that is why he had to flee, but he still loved his memories of his earlier German life.
Besides, I can just hear Opa telling me that two passports are better than one. Thus I am now a dual citizen, with two passports; a blue one and a red one. Should I decide to teach or speak in Germany in the future, I will also be able to do so without worrying about proper documentation. If my book gets published, then I will be able to continue the discussion in Germany as a German.
In a way, all parts of my life are merging together, and I am no longer afraid to embrace them all. I was brought up as an American, but with European traditions which are now acknowledged. I was sort of a European trapped in an American body. But for years I felt ashamed of my German Heritage. Why should I have? German-Jews were not proponents of Nazism, but victims of it and have as much of a right to move on as the younger German generation does. Now, my German roots have been transplanted and synthesized with my identity as an American. I’m sure that this experience is not unique to German-Americans. Today there are American born Iranian-Jews, some also probably gay, whose parents emigrated here from their homeland. One cannot blame a gay Jewish Iranian for the homophobic, anti-Jewish and anti-American rants of the latest Iranian regime. One must remember that Iran has a long history as a safe harbor for the Jewish people and as the center of great civilizations. You shouldn’t have to forever condemn all of a country’s past due to one particular era; even when it was atrocious. I believe you must study it, remember it, and make sure it never happens to anyone else again!
If the Russians, Japanese, Ukrainians, Poles, and others who also committed atrocities during World War II have put that part of their history in the past and proudly moved forwards, I think it is time for the current generation of Germans to be able to do the same. We should all condemn the Nazi ideology and fight against the process of making scapegoats, discriminating against minorities and going to war, rather than continue to stigmatize current Germans. There are still many people even in my own country who still want to stigmatize Jews, gays, immigrants or anyone of African, Asian or Latino descent. I believe that our attention should go to condemn these views and not continue to only focus on Germany’s Nazi past.
Just as Native American Indians, African Americans, and Viet Namese-Americans can still be proud Americans even with a difficult past. They too have become part of the American culture. So that is why I am proud of my dual citizenship; of being an American with a father who fought in the U.S. Army in World War II and a grandfather who fought for the Germans in World War I. That is why I continue to learn from the 12 years of Nazi atrocities, memorialize those who died, and fight discrimination as soon as it occurs. What has changed is that I now can now be proud of German’s present days and pre-war past.
Copyright 2007. Do not publish without written permission from the author.