I stayed up all night waiting to hear the news about the referendum. At first it sounded so promising, Britain was going to remain in the EU. But then, at around 7 a.m. on June 24, 2016, it was announced that we would be leaving.
I suddenly realized that I soon would be unable to live and work in 27 countries. It felt like a blow to the stomach. I couldn’t believe it. After two world wars followed by seven decades of peace, we were about to break apart the Union. I have always felt European, so this felt very personal.
Then an idea came into my head. I’m not sure from where; perhaps someone had said something to me once, or maybe I’d read an article or book that mentioned the possibility. I did a quick online search and confirmed my memory: As a direct descendant of someone who had their citizenship revoked by the National Socialists, I had a right, under Germany’s 1949 constitution known as Basic Law, to apply for my German citizenship to be restored.
So at 8:49 a.m. – less than two hours after the results of the Brexit vote had been declared – I sent an email to the German embassy in London. And then I waited.
My Jewish grandparents, Erich and Elsie Hirschowitz, were born in Germany. In 1936, after the rise of the Nazis, they fled to London, where they were given temporary, and later permanent, refuge. They never spoke about Germany or their time under Hitler. As a family, we didn’t purchase German cars or washing machines; we went on holiday to Paris, Florence or Barcelona, but never to Berlin or Munich. For Erich and Elsie, the objective was to become more British than the British. To blend in, to assimilate. Never to look back.
Then, around 10 years ago, I started to become intrigued by my roots. Where had we come from and how had we ended up in England? I wrote a book called Hanns and Rudolf, about my great-uncle Hanns, who’d tracked down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss. Researching this book led me to spend more time in my grandparents’ childhood homeland.
Truth and reconciliation. The one, I have learned, is not possible without the other.
Then I wrote a second book about our family history. It was during the research for this book, “The House by the Lake,” that things really changed for me. The small wooden weekend house in the book’s title had been built by my grandmother’s father in Gross Glienicke, and when I saw it in 2013 it was abandoned and falling apart. I asked the local villagers if the house could be saved, and so started a three-year campaign to save it from demolition. Once we had persuaded the state of Brandenburg to register the house as a Denkmal, or historic monument, we began working to raise the funds to renovate the decrepit structure. As I write, the roof is being replaced and the walls sealed against the elements.
It was this process of working with the generous, open-hearted locals that changed my relationship with Germany. Before I arrived at the house in 2013, the locals had started research into the Jewish families who had once made up 25 percent of the village. “Who were they?,” they asked, “and where did they go?” And so the villagers began to visit archives and make contact with survivors. They published a small book on the lost families and in this way, acknowledged the crimes of the past. It was this “truth” that allowed me and other members of my family to entertain the idea of returning to Germany, to re-forge relationships and to embrace reconciliation.
Those villagers opened the door and we walked through. They are two things: truth and reconciliation. The one, I have learned, is not possible without the other.
So when people ask, which they often do, have I “forgiven?,” have I “turned the page?,” have I “moved on?,” I say absolutely not. In fact, the opposite is true. It is only by remembering the past, with clarity and without sentimentality, that it is possible to imagine a future together.
More than this, I have been inspired by the German government’s decision to welcome over a million refugees, mostly from Syria, over the past year or so. And to make things even more personal, nine of these newly arrived are members of my family. This is because my sister married a Syrian Kurd 25 years ago, and it is her nephews and nieces who have sought shelter in Berlin from the horrors of Damascus.
These are the reasons why I was able to send that email to the German embassy: Britain’s shameful, foggy-headed decision to leave the EU, my personal experiences in Germany over the past few years, and Germany’s generous treatment of the refugees. And so it became possible for me to even think of applying for the restoration of my citizenship.
So it was that in December 2016, I took the train to London with my wife and daughter, and e made our way to the German embassy on Belgravia Square. There, we were escorted upstairs to a small office where a young official explained that our citizenship had been restored. Rather than handing over the paperwork and ushering us on our way, she took the time to ask
about our family history and was keen to see the photographs and other documents we had brought. Even though she had met with 600 other British Jews who have applied to have their German citizenship restored since Brexit, I was amazed that she was still clearly touched by our situation and the process that we were embracing.
After talking for a while longer, the official passed over our documents. It felt like a big moment. We were all moved. We posed for some pictures, shared our thanks, and then said our goodbyes. A few weeks later, a courier arrived at our door. I opened the package; inside were our new passports.
I now travel to Berlin every few weeks. The house renovations are progressing well and we have started working with refugee and interfaith organizations to transform the site into a center of education and reconciliation. Our plan is to use the turbulent history of the 20th century to bring people together. That, as I said, involves two things: truth and reconciliation.
Thomas Harding is a British writer. His books include “Hanns and Rudolf” and “The House by the Lake.” To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org