Hundreds Of British Jews Apply For German Citizenship In Wake Of Brexit

It's a 'considerable psychological challenge'.

Hundreds of Jews whose ancestors fled the Nazis to seek refuge in Britain are applying for German citizenship in the wake of the EU referendum.

Around 400 applications are currently being processed with another 100 pending, a dramatic rise from the usual 25 per year.

Jewish leaders have described the “considerable psychological challenge” of people contemplating ties to a country that tried to wipe them out little over 70 years ago.

<strong>24th March 1939: Four young members of the largest group of German-Jewish refugees arrive at Southampton on the US liner 'Manhattan'.</strong>
24th March 1939: Four young members of the largest group of German-Jewish refugees arrive at Southampton on the US liner 'Manhattan'.
Fox Photos via Getty Images

One of those who has applied is Michael Newman, the chairman of the Association of Jewish Refugees.

He told the Guardian: “It is somewhat ironic that we [the association] were founded partly to help people become naturalised British after the war and, 70 years on, we find ourselves in the position of assisting people who want to acquire German and Austrian citizenship because of the recent developments in Britain.

“Many of us are finding things out we didn’t know or being forced to take a closer look at our pasts. It’s appalling for some, a revelation for others."

Under Article 116 Paragraph 2 of Germany’s Basic Law, descendants of any nationals persecuted on political, racial or religious grounds by the Nazis to apply for restored citizenship.

In 1933 the Central British Fund for Germany Jewry (CBF and now known as World Jewish Relief) relief was established to rescue Jews from Germany after Hitler came to power.

<strong>11-year-old Otto Busch from Vienna moves in with Mr G. Guest, a British lorry driver, and his wife, at the start of World War II, 1939.</strong>
11-year-old Otto Busch from Vienna moves in with Mr G. Guest, a British lorry driver, and his wife, at the start of World War II, 1939.
Kurt Hutton via Getty Images

The organisation helped thousands of German and Austrian Jews find refuge in Britain and was instrumental in the implementation of the Kindertransport.

WJR head of external affairs, Richard Verber, told Jewish News: “We don’t know how many are researching their family history and how many are applying for another passport, but it is certainly interesting that the organisation responsible for saving the lives of so many people fleeing Germany and Austria might now be facilitating their families’ repatriation to those very countries.”

Some commentators have assumed they know the motivations of Britain’s Jews better than they know themselves and have questioned the real reason for the move.

One of the complicated realities of Brexit is that many Britons whose ancestors came from other parts of Europe are claiming citizenship in other member states so they can retain ties to the continent.

Inquiries about passports are up at the German, Austrian and Polish embassies in London.

Ben Lewis, a 49-year-old documentary filmmaker, is another British Jew considering the move.

While most Jews may not want to leave Britain immediately, they want the option to leave in the future, said Marc Meyer, director of the Conference of European Rabbis.

“For a Jew, without being paranoid, for you to be secure in a place for a long time is to misread history,” he said. “Brexit opens the floodgates of insecurity and those of opportunity.”

<strong>Lunchtime at Dovercourt Bay Holiday Camp near Harwich in Essex, December 1938.</strong>
Lunchtime at Dovercourt Bay Holiday Camp near Harwich in Essex, December 1938.
Kurt Hutton via Getty Images

For some, the decision to seek another passport has been years in the making. Harding has long been coming to terms with his German past, a journey documented in his book, “The House by the Lake.”

The Nazis killed six of his relatives, revoked his family’s citizenship and forced them to leave behind property, including the idyllic summer cottage built by his great-grandfather Alfred Alexander, a doctor whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich. Those who survived fled to Britain.

Harding grew up in a family that toasted the queen, refused to buy German washing machines and went on holidays everywhere in Europe except Germany. When his grandmother, Elsie, finally decided to show Harding and six cousins the city of her upbringing, she handed over a brown envelope.

“Inside was the swastika-stamped passport for her husband and father-in-law, along with a black piece of cloth on which had been sewn a yellow J,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper. “Elsie’s message was clear — this is my history and this is your history. Do not forget.”

In 2013, he returned to the cottage, his grandmother’s “soul place,” which was empty and derelict. He climbed through a broken window to look around. “One room looked as if it had been used as a drug den, littered with broken lighters and soot-stained spoons,” he wrote in the book’s prologue.

The building at Gross Glienicke, a village on the outskirts of Berlin, was to be demolished. In a bid to save it, he unearthed the history of those who lived there. The house encapsulates the history of modern Germany. It was built during the Weimar Republic, confiscated by the Third Reich, separated from the nearby lake by the Berlin Wall and became part of a united Germany after the wall came down.

Now it’s Alexander Haus, which seeks to teach local history.

Its programs also aim to help residents better understand the recent wave of Syrian and other refugees seeking protection in Germany. That has special meaning for Harding, because his sister married a Syrian Kurd. The way Harding sees it, Germany is showing leadership by taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees last year.

Now it’s logical, he says, for Jews to cling to the EU, which was created to build ties that would make another European war impossible.

“You could argue that the flight of the German Jews, the persecution of the German Jews, was the symbol of the breaking up of Europe, and the European Union was set up specifically to create a political, social context of peace,” he said. “That’s part of it, isn’t it?”

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