I Migrated To The Country That Ethnically Cleansed My Ancestors

Living with my wife and having a son in Berlin is more than just a personal celebration for my family. It is a victory for humanity.
Yermi Brenner
Yermi Brenner

After surviving seven months in the Teresinstadt Ghetto, three months in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and seven more months at a Nazi forced labour camp called Christianstadt, the 29-year-old Alice Licht returned to her home city of Berlin, where she learned that her parents had been murdered in the camps, along with many other relatives and friends.

In a poem she wrote in April 1945, after her return to Berlin, Alice describes the craving she felt while she was in the Nazi camps, for the life she lost. The poem, titled Return – Happiness, begins with the following lines:

I once thought – my whole happiness
Lies in that one little word ’Return’
Wherever I went, in all of my dreams
Only one thing prevailed – the longing for this ’Return’
Weeks went by and raced ahead
Nothing had meaning for me any longer – only the belief in this ’Return’
And now, after this return has occurred
To go on I find no strength

Alice survived the Nazis, and in September 1946 she boarded a ship to the United States and never returned to Germany again. She died in Israel in 1987.

I am Alice’s grandson. I was seven when she died. I grew up in Israel, and in the past few years, I have obtained German citizenship, immigrated to Berlin, and started integrating in the German society.

Five months ago, my son, Ezra, was born. Perhaps it’s the sleepless nights or the fatherly pride, but I feel Ezra’s birth in Berlin is more than just a personal celebration for my family. It is a victory for humanity. It demonstrates a society can become a welcoming, ideal home for the people it had previously targeted; an important lesson considering there are millions of people worldwide that were displaced by state violence and are living as refugees.

During the past few weeks, between changing diapers and clueless attempts to please a newborn, I contemplated on my family’s history and on Germany’s reconciliation efforts with Holocaust victims. I wanted to understand what made it possible, logical and desirable for a grandson of a genocide survivor to choose to start his family in the country that committed that genocide.

“I wanted to understand what made it possible, logical and desirable for a grandson of a genocide survivor to choose to start his family in the country that committed that genocide”

I learned that it starts in the family. My grandparents, Alice Licht and Walter Brenner – two orphaned, traumatised Jewish Berliners – met in 1947 on the streets of New York and decided to settle in Los Angeles and start a family. They never again travelled to their homeland, and they did not speak German to their only son Gary, my father.

Gary does remember his mother, who had a Nazi-issued number tattooed on her forearm, having constant nightmares as a result of her memories. But not once did his parents educate him to hate the German people or country. They completely avoided any propagating of hate or anger to the next generation.

In the 1970s, my father immigrated to Israel to live on a kibbutz, and that’s where he met my mother Tamar. She had been raised in Israel of the 1950s and 60s, where anti-German sentiments were common; some people boycotted German products, and there was a decades-long public debate on whether the national philharmonic orchestra should play the works of the German composer Richard Wagner.

But these anti-German sentiments did not exist in the household I grew up in. I cannot recall even one instance in which either of my parents expressed hate or anger towards the nation or people responsible for the scars my grandparents and the killing of my great grandparents.

When my two brothers and I reached adulthood, my parents encouraged us to get to know our German roots. In 2004, they initiated a family trip to Berlin. We visited the location that in the 1940s served as my grandmother Alice’s hiding place; it’s has been converted into a museum. We walked the streets where my ancestors lived, worked and joyed before the Nazis charged in and changed everything. In that trip – my first on German soil – my infatuation with Berlin began.

Yermi Brenner
Yermi Brenner

Shortly after our family trip to Berlin, my parents learned about Article 116 of Germany’s Basic Law, which states that Germans who were forced to flee Germany during the Nazi regime, can claim German citizenship – and so can their descendants. This law is part of Germany’s reconciliation efforts with Holocaust victims. These efforts include other measures, such as reparations payments and the building of prominently located memorials in German cities, but it is Article 116 that has had the most impact on my life, and on the lives of many others. Since the start of the century, about 50,000 people were approved German citizenship based on Article 116, according to Germany’s Federal Statistical Office.

A new book A Place They Called Home (published by Berlinica) includes essays by twelve descendants of Holocaust refugees that decided claim German citizenship, including myself. Each of us wrote about what motivated us to become Germans and how this decision has impacted our lives.

The book’s summary chapter, written by lead author and editor Donna Swarthout, observes that Germany’s decision to make citizenship accessible, as a mean of restitution, is extremely valuable for Holocaust victims and their descendants because it offers protection and the possibility of multiple belongings that enrich and expand the human potential.

I was granted the burgundy red passport of the German Federal Republic in June 2013. At a time when hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees are risking their lives on perilous migration journeys in an attempt to enter and live in Europe, I relatively effortlessly obtained full citizen rights in the European Union’s strongest economy. I felt super privileged.

My wife, Martina, is Croatian. Our collection of passports made it possible for us to choose between living in the EU, Israel or the United States. We knew we wanted to settle in a diverse metropolis, located a short flight away from our Israel and Croatia-based families; a place where we could live safely, grow professionally, and find some like-minded folks to befriend. We had both visited Berlin as tourists and very much appreciated its cosmopolitanism, open-minded, lively vibe. And I was intrigued to live in the city that was home to my ancestors. Relocating to the German capital seemed like the obvious choice.

“In Berlin, more than in any other city I have lived in, I see a stable majority of people who understand the danger of racism and fascism”

We’ve now been Berliners for more than five years. Our neighbourhood in Neukölln, the city’s most ethnically diverse borough, is safe, pleasant and fascinating. We have a stable circle of local friends – made up of Germans and foreigners – and exciting professional opportunities. Plus, I get a kick out of seeing on the streets of Berlin the cobblestones that commemorate Holocaust victims (including my great grandparents: Carl, Paula, Georg and Käthe) integrated casually on sidewalks and in the daily life of every resident.

I am concerned about the reports about growing anti-Semitism in Germany, even if I myself have not had such experiences. The rising popularity of political parties with racist agendas in Germany and elsewhere shows that deep-seated prejudices towards ethnic minorities persist and can flourish. On the other hand, in Berlin, more than in any other city I have lived in, I see a stable majority of people who understand the danger of racism and fascism and are taking a stand against it.

The fact that I feel comfortable starting a family in the place that ruined my ancestors’ lives offers a valuable lesson. It shows that when humans avoid propagating hate, when countries open their doors to peoples they once persecuted, and when cities build pluralistic environments – reconciliation can happen: individuals and societies can find closure.

Yermi Brenner
Yermi Brenner

My grandmother Alice died before finding this closure. But in her writings she predicted it. The poem ‘Return – Happiness’, which she wrote in 1945 after experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, ends with an optimistic verse:

But please believe me, it is not far off
The time I long for will soon come
When I shall again become ’I’
And then, steady, with all my strength
Things will be built, life will be lived and new things created
And it will be true, that the word ’Return’
Holds the foundation of great happiness.

Recently, this prophetic final verse keeps popping in my thoughts, because it actually came true, 74 years after it was written. Alice’s ‘Return’ to Berlin never materialised, but I have been welcomed in Germany. I am building my life here.

And as I stroll with Ezra and Martina through the lovely neighbourhood that’s become our home, I am definitely feeling great happiness.

Yermi Brenner is an Israeli-American-German, journalist, reporting on international migration and asylum, based in Berlin

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