After the Brexit referendum, British writer Natasha Walter was urged by her mother to apply for German citizenship. In revisiting the wartime experiences of her family, the fragile state of present-day Britain became painfully clear

Natasha Walter, above left, with her mother, Ruth, and her 16-year-old daughter, Clara
Natasha Walter, left, with her mother, Ruth, and 16-year-old daughter, Clara. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

After the 2016 referendum, something new popped on to my to-do list, usually appearing somewhere after Take back library books and before Book dentist appointment: Apply for German citizenship.

My mother had been the first to bring up the idea. Because of the referendum, she felt our family should take up the right that Germany granted in 1949 to those, mainly Jews, who had been stripped of their citizenship under the Third Reich. “You should get yours and the children’s,” she said. At first, I was dismissive. I work every day with refugees in London and their yearning to remain has made me vividly aware of the luck I already have in having British citizenship.

Even for the most rational of us, citizenship is not just a piece of convenient paper. I have lived my whole life in England, apart from brief stints to work or study in Italy and the US, and even if the result of the referendum has made my relationship with my country more fraught, I still love it: its landscape, its language, its humour. But my 16-year-old daughter, Clara, fastened quickly on my mother’s statement and did not forget it. For teenagers, the result of the referendum is becoming a practical question about what they will be able to do, rather than a theoretical question about who they are.

Clara is the product of the multicultural London of the 21st century and looks outward in a way I never did. Her three best friends are, by background, Syrian, Chinese and Bengali. She has a French exchange friend who is far from the usual reluctant pen pal; they have spent four holidays in each other’s cities and they regularly WhatsApp in both languages. And she is realistic: “I don’t know where I want to live,” she says. “But no one can buy a flat in London. So it isn’t going to be here, is it?”

If the result of the referendum came as a shock for me, for her I could see it came more as a challenge. “Why shouldn’t I still have the right to work in Europe?” she said to me. “You did.” I got her point and the resentment that rang through it. Why should the older generation take away what she feels as her birthright: porous borders and the possibility of living and working in many different countries?

Still, the months passed and I didn’t download the relevant forms. Clara couldn’t understand why I was being so slow about it. My mother couldn’t understand why I was being so slow about it. I couldn’t understand why I was being so slow about it. It was all so straightforward, wasn’t it?

Yes, it should have been straightforward. My mother’s application was quickly accepted, so ours would obviously follow directly down the line with pure German efficiency. All I had to do was print out those damn forms, put in the addresses of my grandparents’ last residence in Germany, when they lost their German citizenship and so on…

But this is where it didn’t feel straightforward. I didn’t seem to be able to get it done. Was it just inertia about another bit of administration to do? Did it feel like a little betrayal of Britain? In the end, after Clara had downloaded and started the forms herself, I put aside an evening in late September to fill in the blanks. It was only when I reached down my old files of family papers, with “Hamburg” scribbled in marker pen on the spines, that I realised why I had been putting it all off.

I’ve collected a bizarre amount of stuff about the German side of my family over the years. Photocopies of passports and telegrams, records of a trial from 1933, a business card from someone in the Hamburg archives, printouts of emails about the location of a memorial stone, a couple of pages titled “Eva’s memories”, based on conversations I had with my late grandmother and laboriously typed on an old ribbon typewriter when I was 15.

So it all comes at you, birth and war and death all muddled up. You look for some information to add into a small box on a clean form – my grandmother’s last residence in Germany – and you find yourself reaching through time, into darkness, into loss.

I was sitting on the floor of my study, with pieces of paper stacked up around me. I felt listless and overwhelmed by the history that I did not want to see. I went to talk to Clara. She was lying on her bed, multitasking in teenage style – listening to music, messaging her friends, studying her homework.

Natasha Walter’s great-grandparents, Mathias and Clementine Stein, centre, with their children in Hamburg, Germany, late 1920s.
Natasha Walter’s great-grandparents, Mathias and Clementine Stein, with their children in Hamburg, Germany, late 1920s. The Steins died in the Holocaust in 1942; their children, including Walter’s grandmother Eva (centre), survived. Photograph: Courtesy Natasha Walter

“Those forms,” I said, wanting her to see what I saw when I looked into the files, the threat as well as the opportunity. “I can’t find my grandmother’s last address. It’s confusing…” I held out one of the many pages I had about the past. “I guess it would be this address, where my great-grandparents were living at the start of the war. I know they were sent to Theresienstadt but not until later. Then to Treblinka. They arrived in Treblinka on 28 September 1942.”

My daughter looked at me, and I at her, as the significance of the date penetrated our minds. The previous day’s date. Exactly 75 years after my great-grandparents’ death in Treblinka, we are seeking to regain our German nationality. I left the page I was carrying on her bed and went downstairs to make dinner. The forms got put aside again.

 

It was a journey taken by so many Jews, the journey my great-grandparents took 75 years ago. At the start of the war, their children, including my grandmother, had already fled and Mathias and Clementine Stein had been left behind. This 58-year-old housewife and this 62-year-old teacher, who was also a decorated first world war veteran, were not welcome in any country. The doors were closed. In 1942, the transports began of elderly Jews from Hamburg to Theresienstadt. Mathias and Clementine were taken with another 664 Jews in trucks to the railway station and then on the train to Theresienstadt.

It was not a death camp, but it was disease ridden and overcrowded and in September that year 4,000 inmates died. And now death camps had begun to operate. Together with 2,002 other Jews, Mathias and Clementine left Theresienstadt on a transport that set off on 26 September 1942. They were numbers 674 and 675. The Yad Vashem archive sets down the fate of their transport quite clearly. It arrived at the train tracks of Treblinka a couple of days later, and “of the 2,004 on board, not a single person is known to have survived”.

They may have died before they got on the train. They may have died on the train. They may have died in the gas chambers in Treblinka, parted from each other at the end: “Men and women were separated… The women and children were made to undress in a barrack and the women’s hair was cut. Naked, they were forced to leave the barrack and enter the ‘pipe’ – a narrow, fenced-in, camouflaged path that led to the gas chambers. After the victims were locked into the chambers, the engine was started and poison gas poured in.” One of the few survivors of Treblinka, Hershl Sperling, has described similar deaths: “After a few seconds, uncanny, horrifying screams are heard through the walls. These screams go up to heaven, demanding revenge. The screaming becomes weaker and weaker, finally dying away. At last everything is completely silent.”

The notice of ‘evacuation to Theresienstadt sent to Mathias and Clementine Stein in 1942
A letter from 1946 confirming Mathias and Clementine Stein had been sent to Theresienstadt in July 1942, then ‘further to the east’. Photograph: Courtesy Natasha Walter

When I was a child, this was still a Germany in living memory. But now it is the Germany of 75 years ago, it is not today.

In fact, my family were among the lucky ones. Although my great-grandparents were killed, all four of their children left in time – three boys to Palestine and Eva, my grandmother, to work as a maid for a family in Blackheath, London, in 1939. My grandfather, Georg, had a narrower escape. He was a communist and in summer 1933 he was arrested, imprisoned and tortured in Fuhlsbüttel prison in Hamburg. Allowed out in 1936, he first went to Holland and then to Prague. When the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia, he went into hiding for four weeks and finally crossed the border to Poland, smuggled in a coal wagon. He presented himself at the British consulate in Kraków with only the clothes he stood up in, but in May 1939 managed to get a document to travel to the UK on the condition that he was a “transmigrant” who must emigrate elsewhere and must not try to find employment in Britain.

Eva and Georg knew each other a little from Hamburg and met again on the steps of the National Gallery in 1939. Eva was 19 years old and working as a maid for a family who didn’t give her enough to eat and sexually harassed her. Georg was 32 years old and had been in prison or on the run for six years. Would they have married, if they had not met like that, isolated in a country that showed them only a reluctant toleration and terrified for the fate of the parents who could not escape?

Just after their marriage in May 1940, they were interned as enemy aliens and sent to separate men’s and women’s camps. This was no Theresienstadt; this was decent if cold and overcrowded accommodation on the Isle of Man where Eva remembered reading PG Wodehouse to practise her English. But there was no certainty yet about the future. A year later, they were out and living in London and Eva became pregnant. She sent her parents a telegram via the Red Cross to tell them that she was expecting a baby and the last communication she had from them, in January 1942, was that they were looking forward to the arrival. After that, only silence. In 1946, she found out that they had been “sent to the east” and began to blame herself for not managing to bring them to safety.

My mother spoke only German for the first years of her life, since Eva and Georg initially thought that they would soon be returning. Once the camps were opened and the piles of corpses revealed, they realised there was no going back. It was only in 1949 that Eva and Georg were released from their precarious situation and given British citizenship. They worked, they brought up their children, they saw their grandchildren born.

Did they ever feel British? I never asked them. I doubt they would have said yes. Jews who arrived in the UK in the war were given a leaflet by the Board of Deputies of British Jews reminding them to abide by British customs and never speak loudly in public. Their too German voices might disturb the British. My grandmother sometimes told us stories from the past and could be persuaded to get out her old photograph album. “So many ghosts,” she would say as she closed it. My grandfather had no photo albums. He rarely spoke about his past.

It is typical for Jews to tie this kind of family history to the dangers of antisemitism today. But I don’t think the lessons of the past are just about Jewishness. My grandparents passed through quintessential traumas of the 20th century, the Holocaust, yes, but also the realisation of what you become without the protection of the state: a non-human, a pariah. As Hannah Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951: “A man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow man.” Without the protection and recognition of citizenship, we struggle for humanity.

Eleven years ago, I set up a charity, Women for Refugee Women, that works with women seeking asylum. I see many of the experiences of my grandparents when they lost their homeland being repeated in this generation. The refugees I work with in the UK don’t have the right to work, they are exploited, they live in limbo, they wait years for citizenship, they are detained, they have left family members behind and they deal with all of that as they try to move on from the trauma they are fleeing. There is no Holocaust now, but there are wars and oppressions that may bear as harshly on the individual survivor and there are also private persecutions that drive people across borders, whose scars may be as great and more hidden. Too often, the Refugee Convention, which aimed to move the world on from the chaotic displacements of wartime and postwar Europe, is ignored.

“No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony,” Arendt wrote, “than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as ‘inalienable’ those human rights, which are enjoyed by citizens of the most prosperous and civilised countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves.” This irony is not confined to Arendt’s times; indeed, it is becoming painfully obvious again, as refugees drown in the seas or rot in the camps at Europe’s borders.

This is what scared me about Brexit – not just the economic prospects, but the underlying feeling that seemed to propel it, that we are a country that wants to close its doors and turn away from the needs of those on our borders. I finally ask my mother why she decided to take the step of getting her German citizenship and find that for her it is the xenophobia, once hidden under British politeness, which has now become unapologetic. Her close friend and neighbour in her block of flats has been ranting about how it is time to end Britain’s weakness in letting in migrants. “Would you prefer that people like me had never come in?” she asks and he turns his back on her. She is afraid for the next generation and wants to give them whatever insurance she can.

There seems to be a darkness here that was hidden before and is now a visible stain. A few days after I start the application for German citizenship, I read a reader’s comment on the website of the Times for illegal migrants to the UK to be put into gas chambers. No doubt one can hear similar in Germany today and the result of the last election there was unsettling. But it is also clear that there are many in Germany, including its leader, who want to stand up for the rights of refugees. The motives of Angela Merkel in opening the border to Syrian refugees in 2015 may be complex, but as people came forward at stations to welcome the new arrivals you realised that the desire to move on from the past still runs very deeply through Germany.

I get the forms out again and make a date to go down to the German embassy to deliver them. Yes, my daughter is right to want to be German as well as British. If I want her to retain a knowledge of the past, it is not so that she can intone “never again” at memorial services, while keeping her eyes closed to the present. It’s so that she can see what happens when we deny the humanity of any individual, stateless or citizen. But she can learn that anywhere. I’ve done the forms now. We are planning our summer holiday in Germany next year.

Originally published in the New York Review of Books

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