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Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Brexit inspires kin of Jewish refugees who escaped Nazis to reclaim German citizenship

Author Thomas Harding says he was so distressed about the outcome of the U.K.'s Brexit referendum, he immediately went online to look into an old German law that allows anyone stripped of their citizenship by the Nazis to reclaim it, including their descendants. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

It's a chronicle that circles round, toying with history and questions of identity. A bit of a mind-twister. 

Descendants of Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi persecution to settle in Britain before and during the Second World War now seek to reclaim German citizenship so they can remain a part of the post-war entity founded in a bid to ensure war would never again raise its head on the European continent. 

It's one of the consequences of Britain's decision to end its membership in the European Union after a partnership of some 43 years. 

"I stayed up all night watching the Brexit vote," says Thomas Harding, a London-born writer and historian. "Around 7 a.m., they announced [the referendum result] and I was really distressed. It felt like a real loss." 

And so he went online to look into an old law that allows anyone stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazis "on political, racial or religious grounds" between the end of January 1933 and May 8, 1945, to reclaim it, including their descendants. 

Harding's ancestors fled the Nazis in the 1930s.

Author Thomas Harding’s great-grandfather, Dr. Alfred Alexander, was awarded Germany’s Iron Cross for his medical service during the First World War. In 1935, the German Reich’s Propaganda Ministry issued a decree forbidding Jewish soldiers from being named on First World War memorials. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

Article 116 of the German Basic Law has existed since 1949. The German Foreign Ministry says its London Embassy has fielded more than 400 enquiries about the law and received 100 applications since the Brexit vote on June 23. That compares to about 20 a year normally. 

"I'm like, 'OK, if I don't have to give up my British passport, don't have to speak German and don't have to have residency, then why not? What do I have to lose?" says Harding. 

On one level, it's a practical solution for someone eager not to lose — for himself or for his children — the right to live and work freely in the other 27 EU countries. 

But on another, it's a psychological minefield, especially for older generations and those who survived the Holocaust. 

Harding says his family wouldn't have considered buying a German car or dishwasher when he was growing up, let alone think of re-applying for German citizenship. 

But he believes looking back and remembering doesn't mean you can't look forward. Even before the Brexit vote, he'd already been journeying deep into his family's past, trying to reconcile what happened to them with the Germany of today. 

"We never rejected Germany, Germany rejected us. We were German citizens and the Nazis ceased our citizenship in 1939. My grandmother always felt part of Germany." 

'It's about saying hello to Europe'

In 1993, Harding took a trip with his grandmother, Elsie, back to a village near Berlin to find her family's summer home. It had been seized by the Nazis after the family fled. It became the subject of Harding's latest book, The House by the Lake

The book chronicles some of the owners of the house through history, including Harding's great-grandfather, Alfred Alexander, a doctor who counted Marlene Dietrich and Albert Einstein among his patients. 

And so began a love affair between Harding, the house and the German villagers who helped him fight for its recognition as a building of historical status, a collaboration that continues today.

Harding’s latest book, The House by the Lake. He also wrote Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, about his uncle Hanns Alexander, a German refugee who arrested the former commandant of Auschwitz.

"I think because they opened that door, we were able to walk through it," he says of the local community's interest in commemorating the story of the house and its Jewish history. 

In other words, Germany's efforts to confront its past make it possible for him to consider German citizenship. 

"It's possible to remember and never forget the crimes and the trauma, but also to look forward and be hopeful and look to a better future. It's possible to do both of those things." 

Harding believes modern Germany represents that, especially given its generous response to Syrian refugees today, some of whom are relatives because his sister is married to a Syrian. 

"To me it's not about saying goodbye to Britain," he says. "It's about saying hello to Europe." 

Look forward

About 70,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and Central Europe fled Nazi persecution to the United Kingdom before the Second World War and received a somewhat ambivalent welcome.

About 10,000 predominantly Jewish children came on the famed "Kindertransport."

Sir Erich Reich was one of them. Born in Austria in 1935, the Nazis deported his family to Poland before he was sent to the United Kingdom, at age four. His parents were killed at Auschwitz.

Austria also offers victims of Nazi persecution the possibility of reclaiming their citizenship, but it doesn't extend to their descendants.

Reich says he wouldn't dream of considering it anyway. 

"Because the Austrians threw me out, and when I was four years old, 3½ in fact, because my parents were Jewish … why should I become a citizen?"

Erich Reich (bottom left) was just four years old when he and his older brothers were sent to the U.K. on the Kindertransport in 1939. His parents, shown here, were killed at Auschwitz.

The philanthropist doesn't believe the Austrian government has done enough to confront its past, unlike Germany. He says the Holocaust is essentially glossed over in school. 

"I'll be very, very honest," says Reich, sitting in his garden in a leafy London suburb. "I don't think looking backwards is the right thing. I think you need to look forward and that's what I've done." 

Reich immigrated to Israel at 13, eventually serving as a paratrooper in the army. But he returned to London in the 1960s and that's how he identifies himself now, as a Brit. 

"I know I was an orphan. I know I was born somewhere else. But this is where I've lived for many, many years." 

'Not a good reason' 

The Association for Jewish Refugees here estimates there are about 5,000 Jewish refugees and survivors of Nazi oppression living in the U.K.

Reich, shown here in his Highgate garden, was knighted for his charitable contributions in Britain. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

Reich admits his children have expressed an interest in seeing him reclaim Austrian citizenship. If he did, they could apply for citizenship based on their ancestry. 

"One [said] 'Why don't you get an Austrian passport and then your children and grandchildren could travel.'" 

But he says that would have nothing to do with reclaiming something that was taken from him, if that were even possible given the depth of horror and loss emanating from the Holocaust. 

"If I apply, I'm doing it only so that my children can travel," he says, "and that's not a good reason to, don't you think?"

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