Upset by Brexit, Some British Jews Look to Germany

LONDON — Until Britain voted to leave the European Union, Philip Levine never thought deeply about his Jewish heritage.

But looking for a way to ensure that he could still work and live in Europe once Britain leaves the bloc, Mr. Levine, 35, who was born in Britain and lives in London, decided to do what some Jews, including his relatives, might consider unthinkable: apply for German citizenship.

He did so by employing a provision of German law that has been on the books since 1949 but that has been little used in recent years. It allows anyone whom the Nazis stripped of their German citizenship “on political, racial or religious grounds” from Jan. 30, 1933, to May 8, 1945, and their descendants, to have their citizenship restored. Most of those who lost their citizenship during that period were Jews, though they also included other minorities and political opponents.

He is not alone in turning to the German law after Britain’s decision to end its membership in the European Union, also known as Brexit. Since the vote in June, the German embassy in London said it had received at least 400 requests from Britons for information about German citizenship under a legal provision known as Article 116.

At least 100 are formal applications by individuals or families, said Knud Noelle, an embassy official. “We expect more in coming weeks,” he said, adding that the embassy normally receives roughly 20 such applications every year.

The interest among British Jews is far greater than ever before, said Michael Newman, the chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees, who said that he, too, was considering applying for German citizenship. The association is based in London.

“I don’t remember hearing of requests before” for German citizenship in the association’s 75-year-old history, he said. “It’s taken Brexit to do this. It was a game-changer.”

The development is among the most surprising techniques being used by British and European citizens as they seek a second passport that would allow them to retain their ability to travel, work and live anywhere in the bloc even after Britain’s departure is complete sometime in the next several years.

People from the Continent living in Britain, Britons living in Europe and Britons living at home but eager to retain the benefits of European citizenship are investigating their heritage, considering marriage, studying residency requirements and otherwise searching for legal paths to get around the effects of the British vote.

“I didn’t realize how simple it is,” Mr. Levine said of the application process for German citizenship, adding that he had done it initially for practical reasons and because his brother brought it up. “It’s literally a back door” into Europe.

Britain allows dual citizenship, and Jews interviewed for this article said they planned to keep their British nationality. They said they had no immediate plans to move to Germany, either. Rather, German citizenship would allow them to keep traveling visa-free inside the European Union and maintain other benefits of belonging to Europe.

Many British Jews, especially the younger generations, are comfortable with Germany, which they say has done enough to confront its past.

Richard Ferrer, the editor of Jewish News, which is based in London, said he did not plan to apply for German citizenship, but only because he was a “born and bred Brit.” Germany has done everything in its power to right its past wrongs, he said. “I’m very pro-German and I’m very happy with Germany,” he said.

But if the process of applying for citizenship is straightforward, it is wrapped in complex questions of identity and statehood that tore Europe apart in the last century, one more unintended consequence of Britain’s decision to go its own way after more than 20 years in the union.

In Mr. Levine’s case, his grandparents fled Germany in 1939, at the start of World War II. They kept their documents, including old passports and entry visas into Britain, which are necessary for the application process.

About 70,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia arrived in Britain before 1939, Mr. Newman said. But they were regarded with suspicion by the British authorities. Many were held in internment camps in places like the Isle of Wight, often together with pro-Nazi Germans who had also decided to resettle in Britain.

After the Nazi Party was declared the only legal party in Germany, the government passed a law to strip individual Jews of their German citizenship, with their names listed in the Reich Law Gazette. Jews living abroad lost their citizenship in November 1941. As deportations began and the first extermination camps were being built, Jews were stripped of their assets, leaving many stranded in Germany because their passports had been nullified.

For some of the British Jews now applying for German citizenship, the process has led them to confront, for the first time, a painful family history. Some American Jews are going through the same process, albeit without the additional incentive provided by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Mr. Levine is an artist and uses his shaved head as a canvas for what he calls headism, artwork intended to raise awareness of mental health issues. He grew up feeling very British, but has also traveled extensively across Europe and has many German friends. His grandparents avoided talking about Nazi Germany — and he did not ask.

Not long ago, for the first time, Mr. Levine held in his hands a passport belonging to his grandfather, a large red “J” stamped on the cover to signify “Jude,” German for Jew. His aunt, who kept the document, also showed him a Nazi government letter notifying his grandfather that one of his names had been changed to sound more Jewish.

In the space of a couple of weeks, as Mr. Levine asked questions and dug around his family archives, what was originally a practical decision took on a more personal meaning.

“My reaction became — I want to spite the Nazis,” said Mr. Levine, who asked some of his German friends to translate the letter because he does not speak German. They, too, expressed outrage over its contents. It was only then that he fully realized his part in history, he said, and felt that “now I can do something about it.”

Thomas Harding is another Jewish Briton applying for German citizenship. “I feel much more comfortable about Germany and Germans,” he said.

Thomas Harding is another Jewish Briton applying for German citizenship. “I feel much more comfortable about Germany and Germans,” he said.

When Britain announced it was leaving Europe, “I felt really distressed,” he said. “I felt like I was losing something.”

The great-grandson of Alfred Alexander, a prominent doctor in Berlin whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich, Mr. Harding, 48, said that his desire for citizenship stemmed from a project to restore his great-grandfather’s home, which was seized by the Nazis and only recently returned to the family.

The summer house, on Berlin’s westernmost border in Gross Glienicke, Germany, and near what used to be a Nazi airfield, was awarded a landmark status in 2014 and turned into a memorial for truth and reconciliation.

The project was the focus of his recently published book, “The House by the Lake.” Villagers of Gross Glienicke had initially reached out to him for a separate project researching the village’s Jewish families, including his.

In the beginning, “I still had a lot of antagonism toward Germany and the Germans,” Mr. Harding said. “I was very distrustful.”

But as his relationship with the villagers deepened, work on the house progressed and a tentative friendship blossomed, “it gave me the confidence of walking through the door,” he said. “And they welcomed me through.”

His attitude toward Germany brightened further when it began accepting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. “I was very grateful to the Germans, because I think it was incredibly brave, very difficult, very controversial, but the right decision,” he said.

His sister, who lives in Germany and is married to a Syrian Kurd, brought over their Syrian relatives earlier this year.

Mr. Harding said he felt a sense of wonder at how history is an endless repetition. “This is not about Germans or Jews or Syrians,” he said. “This is a human condition. This is going to happen all the time.”

That all came to a head at 9 a.m. on June 23, he said, barely two hours after Britain finished tallying the vote to leave the European Union. “I thought, ‘O.K., I actually do not want to be apart from Europe,’” Mr. Harding recalled telling himself.

“I love the fact that I’m not applying for citizenship — I’m having my citizenship restored,” he said. “It’s in the initial basic law when Germany was created. I just think that is so powerful.”

Source: NY Times
Posted: August 2016

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