It was hard to forgive the Nazis. The “1,000 year Reich” lasted a mere 12 years, and the German state was crushed under the weight of bloody streets, genocidal concentration camps and despotism. For this to happen in the heart of apparently civilised Europe was unimaginable – especially for Jews who had often been fully included, and very often assimilated, members of society.
One of my relations fought on Germany’s side in the first world war. I’ve seen his grave in a Dresden cemetery, a city fire-bombed with spite by the allies in 1945. I was the first Loewenstein family member to visit the place after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember finding the street where my family had lived, unrecognisable in a sea of Soviet-inspired concrete. I used a pay phone and called my parents in Melbourne. We all cried, a silent recognition that our tragic Jewish story, sadly too common for words, began in a quiet and plain street in a deceptively normal German setting.
American writer Erik Larson’s stunning book In the Garden of Beasts, which profiles William E Dodd, the first US ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, gives a chilling taste of the seductive nature of German fascism. One of Dodd’s daughters, Martha, had her hand kissed by Hitler in 1933, and her father acknowledged “that Hitler was not an unattractive man personally.” This was the illusionary calm before the onslaught.
As a Jew born in Australia in 1974, I never imagined that Germany’s long shadow would envelop my adult life. In 2011, I became a German citizen while maintaining my Australian passport, due to a 1954 German law that allowed Jews to re-instate citizenship removed by the Nazis during their reign. I wanted citizenship for a few reasons, not least to honour my family that Germany once rejected, and to have the option of working freely across the European Union.
Article 116 par 2 of Germany’s Basic Law reads:
“Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored. They shall be deemed never to have been deprived of their citizenship if they have established their domicile in Germany after May 8, 1945 and have not expressed a contrary intention.”
The vast bulk of my European family were murdered during the war, and those who escaped were made stateless before they fled. The vibrant global Jewish diaspora that exists today is largely due to the rupture of Jewish life in the 1930s across a world that was far from keen to accept them. My grandparents left Europe in 1939 and arrived in an Australia that viewed Jews with suspicion. They said that Perth, where the ship first docked, was “primitive and without rye bread”.
The process of acquiring German citizenship has been a long journey that reveals the often tortuous relationships that continue to define Jewish identity in the 21st century. My father’s father, Fred, died before I recall having any serious conversations with him about becoming a German citizen. His attitude towards his birth country evolved to a point where I sensed he didn’t hate Germany, loved his adopted nation, Australia, but would not have even remotely considered re-acquiring his German citizenship.
My uncle, Herbert, also born in Dresden, is 93 and still alive in Toronto. For him too, re-acquiring his German citizenship was out of the question. He wasn’t even prepared to visit Germany until a few years ago – and then, it was because he was invited by the city of Dresden. After all, Germany had rejected our family, killed the youngest and oldest and changed the fate of our lives irrevocably.
My father, Jeffrey, was different. When I first mentioned the idea of obtaining a German passport many years ago, he dismissed the whole idea out of hand. It was not an unusual Jewish response, a visceral rejection of ever seeing Germany as a nation worth respecting and viewing us as Jews and equals. I protested his intransigence but it was futile (he had to obtain citizenship first before I was able to do so).
Over the years I would occasionally ask if his position had changed, and it took a long time for his opposition to relent. I continued reminding him that Germany had shifted, and was no longer a haven for Jew-hatred (though Neo-Nazis and the far-right remains a growing problem).
Finally, my father gave in and realised that becoming a German citizen was in no way endorsing the policies of former German governments, but a way to rightfully re-claim our birthright. My father had meticulously kept all the documents that the German consulate required. A process that officials said would take a few months took two years.
On 14 January 2011, I arrived at the German consulate in Sydney and waited until a senior official appeared. He congratulated me on becoming a German citizen and asked how I felt. I had tears in my eyes, unsure what to say, but I mumbled something about never imagining that Germany was again so keen to welcome me, as a Jew and atheist, into its heart. I also felt, but didn’t verbalise, that it was a personal victory against Nazism.
Today I feel neither German nor Australian. I hope my murdered ancestors would understand why I wanted to once again assume a German identity, or at least attachment to my pedigree as a fully-fledged member of German’s Jewish community. And yet I’m a non-practicing Jewish atheist currently based in Sydney.
Uncritical nationalism towards my birth country is impossible. I share human rights lawyer Julian Burnside’s despair at the Australian elite’s ability to unleash cruelty against asylum seekers and the dispossessed, and I question whether our settler-colonial state has ever really felt comfortable fully accepting the strange, the new, the remote, the other. Multiculturalism exists but its implementation can never be complete while politicians and media commentators divide a population by warning Australians that [insert minority group here] are a threat to our harmony.
My ostracism from mainstream Judaism is directly linked to Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians. For too many Jews, Zionism has become their main religion, and a God of intolerance is praised on a regular basis. When then Israeli finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a conference in 2003 that Israeli Arabs were a threat to the Jewish nature of his country (he said “If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens”) it should have been condemned as outright racism.
Instead, such comments are routinely expressed by senior Israeli officials and the world shrugs though. As leading American human rights professor and United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories professor Richard Falk said last week in Sydney, the Jewish state will increasingly face boycotts, sanctions and divestment so long as it oppresses the Palestinians.
A former head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, says in the Israeli film The Gatekeepers that “[We’ve become] a brutal occupation force similar to the Germans in World War II”.
This is what my people are known for around the globe.
According to new Israeli government released figures, Jews are now outnumbered by Arabs under Israeli sovereignty by over 50,000 people. That’s segregation by definition. Israel learns nothing from history except how to brutalise the marginalised. Germany struggles to understand how it allowed itself to be overcome by 12 years of madness. Australia is a free nation that locks up refugees in remote and privatised detention camps, making a mockery of our “fair go” claim.
My identity is a conflicted and messy mix that incorporates Judaism, atheism, anti-Zionism, Germanic traditions and Anglo-Saxon-Australian beliefs. And yet I both routinely reject and embrace them all. It sounds exhausting but it’s actually invigorating. I never feel I belong anywhere. I can’t be a Jew, atheist, German or Australian without a bundle of caveats.
Perhaps that just makes me human.