My Great-Grandparents Fled Nazi Germany. Here's Why I Applied For German Citizenship.

After Charlottesville and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, "We’re moving to Germany to escape the Nazis" started to seem less ridiculous.
The author with her United States and German passports
The author with her United States and German passports
Courtesy of Ella Genevieve Alexander

On Aug. 28, 2019, I received an email from the German consulate informing me that my family’s renaturalization application had been approved: We were Germans. Again.

After submitting a patchwork of documentation in January 2017 — gathered from Freiburg, London, Haifa and the San Fernando Valley — that proved that my grandfather, prize-winning Israeli physicist Shlomo Alexander, was the same Edgar Solomon Alexander born a German citizen in 1929 and forced to flee to British Palestine before he was old enough to read, we waited without word from the embassy for two and a half years.

Half-convinced that our file was fated to rot on the desk of an undermotivated government employee forever, the email informing us that we’d been approved for German citizenship surprised us. My father called me that same day and paraphrased from an old Hebrew folk song, “The hour we have yearned for, the hour is here.”

This was a joke, of course. Very few people get renaturalized to Germany out of a deep connection with a lost homeland. I, knowing that, grammatically, ‘nicht’ comes after ‘weiss,’ spoke the most German out of any of us, and my mother, a Unitarian from Missouri and the only member of the family ineligible for citizenship, had the most German blood. (Through her, I’m distantly related to the boxer/Aryan ubermensch propaganda symbol Max Schmeling, which I’ve always found faintly ridiculous.)

German renaturalization is the process of obtaining citizenship as a restorative measure for “victims of persecution by the Nazi regime who were deprived of their German nationality on political, racial or religious grounds between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945.” The idea underlying this policy is that those of us whose parents and grandparents were stripped of their citizenship were, ourselves, always Germans in essence, and now the law is simply recognizing this unalterable truth.

“I was happy to have my German passport, of course, but no passport or paperwork could make me German.”

Most descendants of German Jews, however, are not so sentimental about the old country. They go through the process primarily for the purpose of obtaining citizenship in a European Union country. The German passport is the third most powerful in the world, allowing access to 191 countries without a visa — an appealing prospect for Jews in Israel (ranked 23) or in Latin American countries like Argentina and Brazil (tied at 19). For Americans, the appeal usually has more to do with the ability to live and work in Europe without sponsorship or to get access to universal health care in case of serious illness.

In 2016, there was a spike in applications for German renaturalization coming from Britain and the United States due, of course, to the unexpected results of the Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election. This bumped the application processing time from approximately nine months to, in our case, 32 months.

“We’re moving to Germany to escape the Nazis,” I’d joke. After the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the crowd shouted anti-Semitic chants, tacitly endorsed by President Donald Trump, and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the joke started to seem less ridiculous.

In my family, I was the main advocate for renaturalization, having spent a semester abroad in Berlin, where I made some close friends. I thought I might want to go to grad school there one day if writing for a living didn’t work out. Since it was the same amount of work either way, my father and brother chose to apply alongside me. My dad, who grew up in Israel and acquired U.S. citizenship as an adult, asked his sister if she and her sons were interested in applying jointly with us. They had only Israeli citizenship, so becoming members of an EU state seemed even more appealing.

We met with a restitution specialist from the German Consulate in Los Angeles, scanned birth certificates and marriage licenses, and dug up mid-century letters that my great-grandfather, the physicist Ernst Alexander, had received from his former University of Freiburg mentor, the Nobel laureate and fellow Third Reich exile Georg von Hevesy.

Most of these were written in an English so stilted and formal that it seemed almost mystical ― “Times are very favourable for getting money for research,” writes Hevesy in the early ’60s. It is striking that two men who once spoke to each other daily in German would choose to correspond years later in English, even at the expense of fluid communication.

Letters to Ernst Alexander, the author's great-grandfather, from his father Georg Alexander and Nobel laureate Georg von Hevesy.
Letters to Ernst Alexander, the author's great-grandfather, from his father Georg Alexander and Nobel laureate Georg von Hevesy.
Courtesy of Ella Genevieve Alexander

My father found evidence of a lawsuit Ernst mounted in 1956 against the West German government arguing that, had he not been deprived of his position in 1933 on the basis of his Jewish heritage, he would have become a tenured professor at the University of Freiburg, and thus deserved appropriate compensation. Defending him, a Freiburg friend’s character testimonial explains that my great-grandfather was an excellent scientist and “belongs amongst those Jews who feel particularly close to German culture and tradition.” (He lost that lawsuit, but won another years later.)

I discovered a handwritten letter to Ernst from his father Georg Alexander, dated Jan. 22, 1938. It had been tucked into a worn leather pouch in a crate of diaspora miscellanea in my parents’ Los Angeles garage. Georg and his wife had just visited Ernst and his family in Jerusalem and then returned home to Berlin. Georg writes about his happiness at seeing “the beloved faces of Shlomo and Dinah,” elaborating that, “the children are really beautiful, well, and healthy, and I have only the wish that they may grow up to be your joy. Just as I always feel joy when I see the four of you around me in my thoughts, even though it can’t overcome my worries.”

Of the newest round of anti-Semitic laws, banning Jews from leaving the country among other restrictions, Georg writes only that, “It’s really getting more and more uncomfortable.” Perhaps due to fear of censors reading his correspondence, he doesn’t say more, but there is a sense of foreboding throughout the letter. It reads as if he knows he is going to die.

I couldn’t see how the embassy could classify this as proof of citizenship, but my father, who had done most of the work, sent over a scan anyway.

There were some bureaucratic delays. The restitution specialist couldn’t find my grandfather’s birth record in Freiburg, and my aunt had to order new copies of her sons’ birth certificates from the excruciatingly inefficient Israeli Ministry of the Interior. Some documents that would have strengthened our case had disappeared, most likely in the Old Jerusalem house of Dinah, my grieving great-aunt who had recently lost her husband to a heart attack and her left leg to diabetes. Already in the middle stages of dementia, nobody could ask her to dig through the past, even if we’d been callous enough to try.

Still, our contact at the consulate felt that we had enough evidence. After all, my father’s cousin in London had received her German citizenship in the ’90s based on the same documents.

Ernst Alexander (third from left) with Georg von Hevesy (center) and other students and lab assistants at the University of Freiburg in Germany, c.1930.
Ernst Alexander (third from left) with Georg von Hevesy (center) and other students and lab assistants at the University of Freiburg in Germany, c.1930.
Courtesy of Peter Graeber, Institute of Physical Chemistry, University of Freiburg.

After I learned that we’d been approved for citizenship, I made an appointment at the German Embassy in New York, where I was living, to sign paperwork and apply for a passport. I got my passport photo taken in a surreal combination flower shop/photo studio, and I thought I looked stereotypically German enough ― pale and unsmiling ― in the resulting pictures.

I went through the metal detectors in the UN building, waited in line behind a few men dressed in the suits and top hats of the ultra-orthodox Jews, who I assume were there for the same purpose as I was, and then signed papers in front of a very enthusiastic German man.

“You know,” I said, “I spent a semester in Berlin when I was in college.”

The man smiled and said something to me in German.

“Ich weiss nicht,” I replied.

“Are you happy to be German?” he asked.

“Oh! Yeah. Of course.”

Then I received a little metal pin with crossed American and German flags and a bag of Haribo gummy bears, which they warned me weren’t kosher, and I was sent on my way.

I was happy to have my German passport, of course, but no passport or paperwork could make me German. My great-grandfather Ernst and his wife Ernestina (yes, really) were Germans, even when their national identity conflicted with the identity of the nation they called home. They were German even after the German government fired my great-grandfather from his position at the university, stripped the pair of their citizenship, forced them to flee with very few possessions, and sent those of their family members who remained in Germany to die in Auschwitz.

They were German even after they’d learned Hebrew and spent over half their lives in Israel. They spoke German at home and decorated their Jerusalem apartment with Bauhaus furniture bought from Ernst’s cousin, a German judge-turned-Tel Aviv carpenter. They couldn’t shed their Germanness any more than I could adopt it.

It’s ironic that I applied for German citizenship in part as a safeguard against the rise of ethnonationalism and conservative extremism, the very things that drove my great-grandparents out of Germany. While I won’t draw direct parallels between Nazi Germany and modern America, racist and anti-Semitic hate crimes increased dramatically during the Trump era. Even now that he’s out of office, the white supremacists he encouraged to emerge from the shadows have not yet slunk back into them. Countries around the world, such as the Philippines, Brazil, Poland, Hungary and Turkey, have fascist leaders, and we are still in the midst of a wave of modern fascism.

My father, an immigrant, considers himself American in a way that his grandparents could never consider themselves Israeli. He says that the best thing about America is its flexibility: Anybody can become American, not just on paper, but in their souls. I think it’s a beautiful sentiment, and I hope it’s an enduring one, but I still find the extra security of having an EU passport ― just in case ― comforting.

Ella Genevieve Alexander is a writer living in Los Angeles, where she is working on a memoir about growing up as an outsider in Malibu. Her work has been published in Longreads, and you can follow her on twitter at @EllaGAlexander.

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