Passport to the past
Should Hilary Freeman become a German citizen? The BBC helped her examine her roots
IN A small Jewish cemetery, on a traffic island in the middle of a housing estate, I am meeting my greatgrandmother, Hedwig Baruch, for the first time. Without the help of a map, I might (literally) have stepped over her grave. Her headstone, long-neglected, like those that lie alongside it, has almost disappeared beneath a knot of entwined weeds and foliage. It is as if the landscape is trying to reclaim it. I tug at the weeds with my bare hands, brushing away the soil until her name becomes clear.
This cemetery is in Krefeld, a moderate-sized town in the northwest of Germany, where I have come to film a BBC One documentary, British Jews, German Passports, which follows me, Rabbi Julia Neuberger and Robert Voss, as we decide whether or not to apply for a German passport. Having researched my family history, the film-makers have brought me to my grandfather’s birthplace, so I can learn more about my family’s origins.
That Hedwig’s headstone exists at all is no small miracle; most Jewish cemeteries were destroyed by the Nazis. She died in October 1939, just a few weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, and less than two months after her son — my late grandfather Sidney Brook (born Siegfried Baruch and known to me as Saba) — fled to England at the age of 18. She was only 46 (almost exactly my age today), and it is said that she died of a broken heart. At least she was spared the horrors of what was to come for the rest of her family. Two years later, her husband, my great-grandfather Eduard Baruch, was deported to the Riga Ghetto, where he was shot, along with 50,000 other Jews.
Until last year, I had no idea that I was entitled to reclaim the German citizenship that was stolen from my grandparents, and it was not something I could ever have contemplated. I had never been to Germany, having been brought up to view it as a bad place, its produce and its people forever sullied by the Holocaust. My parents wouldn’t buy a German car, or fridge, and elderly Germans who we encountered on holiday were regarded with contempt. Despite being a quarter German, I felt absolutely no affinity with the country, its language, or its people.
And then Brexit happened and — because I have a French partner, a half-French daughter, and a strong desire to remain an EU citizen and retain free movement — I started to think again about Germany. At first, its offer of a passport, which I learned about on Facebook, seemed like a purely practical answer to my prayers. It felt as though there were some kind of poetic justice about it; the country that had taken so much from my family giving something, however tiny, back. But the more I learned about modern Germany, its openness and tolerance, the more warmth I felt towards it.
Family legend has it that the Baruchs, who were Sephardi, first arrived in Germany in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Saba told us that a school familytree project, designed by the Nazi authorities to show how impure the Jews were, had instead proved — to the horror of the authorities — that he was more German than anybody else. Part of the reason I was in Krefeld was to discover if this was true. Had my family been German for centuries? I also wanted to learn more about my great-grandparents’ lives and to find out what happened to other, unknown, members of my family. Did I have any surviving relatives or was my grandfather the only Baruch who made it to safety?
It’s a short drive from Dusseldorf to Krefeld, across a landscape as flat as the nearby Netherlands. Few would call Germany a pretty country but, in the suburbs of Krefeld, there are tree-lined avenues and attractive villas. I try to picture my grandfather here as a young boy, walking down these streets, gazing out at the same flatlands, happily integrated, without a inkling of what was to come. In the centre of town, rebuilt after being flattened by Allied bombs, I find the spot where he grew up. Once the premises of the butcher’s shop run by his father, it is now a tanning salon.
At the Villa Merlander, the town’s Holocaust archive and museum, I am confronted by a familiar face. There, on the wall, in the middle of photo of a group of young people, is my Saba. The photo is labelled incorrectly, but it is unmistakably Saba, with his cheeky grin and slightly protruding ears. It is weird to see him in a museum, a strange melding of “History” and my personal history, the individual with the universal. When I return to London, I find the same photograph in his own treasured album. According to the back of his copy, the photo portrays his very last get-together with his close friends, before he escaped to England.
In the Villa Merlander’s most grandiose, wood-panelled room, there is a memorial to all the Krefeld Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. It takes the form of a tapestry, with each name handembroidered by children at local schools. Eduard’s name is there, and so is that of his second wife, Frida. A local historian, who has been researching my family tree, tells me that, after my greatgrandmother’s death and my grandfather’s escape, Eduard was forced to live in a communal Jewish house. There he met the much younger Frida, whom he married in 1941. They would still have
been in their honeymoon period when they were deported to Riga, that October. Amazingly, Frida survived the ghetto, but she was forced into a concentration camp, probably Auschwitz. She didn’t survive.
There can be little doubt that the Jews of Krefeld knew what fate would befall them. In one section of the Jewish cemetery, a few rows away from Hedwig’s grave, I stop in my tracks. Before me lies a group of headstones, each bearing several names, and all with the same dates inscribed on them. A memorial plaque explains that these were the Jews who chose to take their own lives, rather than be deported.
Before I leave, I am told that the town wishes to honour the memory of my grandfather and greatgrandfather, by placing engraved, gold “stumbling stones” at the site of the house where they once lived. It’s a lovely gesture, and I hope to return to Krefeld for the ceremony.
From Krefeld, we drive to a town I have never heard of: Frechen, which is situated on the outskirts of Cologne. There, I meet another local historian, who has not only researched my family, but actually written books about them. He tells me that Eduard was born in Frechen, only moving to Krefeld
to open his butcher’s shop. His father, Isaac, was also a butcher. So was his father, and his wife’s father and so on… To my amusement, I learn that I come from a long line of butchers and cattle traders, generations of them. I wonder what they would think of me, a vegetarian since I was 12.
Frechen is where my family’s real German history lies. In fact, my ancestors on Eduard’s grandmother’s side — the Levys — were the oldest Jewish family in the town, with records dating back to the early 18th Century and beyond. It seems that the family legend might hold some water, although there is nothing tangible to link them to Spain. The cemetery here is full of my relatives — including an Asher ben Levite, who died in 1839 — and was desecrated on Kristallnacht. At the end of the war, the British ordered the townspeople to restore it, as penance. There is still visible evidence of bullet holes on some of the headstones.
The archivist has a surprise for me, something I could never have anticipated. Records show that the Baruch side of the family did not originate in Germany, after all. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Leibel Baruch (or Baruch Leibel — surnames did not exist at the time) was born in Reichshoffen, Alsace, France. My origins are French! Given that my reason for starting this journey was to secure the future of my Anglo-French family, this is a rather pleasing discovery. Through my own research, I have found Leibel and his family, on the 1784 Alsace Census, recorded as “Family no 7.” From a genealogical perspective, antisemitism — with its frequent lists of Jews — has its uses.
And there is an even bigger surprise: news of some surviving relatives. Saba’s grandfather Isaac had many siblings. One of them, Joseph, had a son — like Saba, named Siegfried Baruch — who escaped to the US, settling in Chi- cago. His son, Steven, now lives in Wisconsin and has two children, Laura and David. Since coming home, I have corresponded with both Steven and Laura, and hope to meet them some day. I’m just sad that Saba didn’t know of their existence before he died in 1998. He believed everyone had perished.
While I was in Germany, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and the generosity of the locals, and their efforts to make up for the past. The Mayor of Frechen even came out to meet me. As a Jew, I felt more welcome there than I do in the UK. Here, antisemitism is a slightly grubby and complex issue, bound up with anti-Israel sentiment. There, antisemitism feels uncomplicated, out in the open, just something evil, to be stamped out.
But I can’t say I felt at home in Germany. I don’t feel German, any more than I feel French, or even particularly British. I now feel like I am from everywhere and nowhere in Europe, keener than ever to retain my EU citizenship. And that’s why I have decided to apply for my German passport. I think Saba would have supported my decision.
‘British Jews, German Passports’ is on BBC One at 10.45pm on Tuesday May 2
Local historians in Frechen show Hilary Freeman her family tree. Below: pre-war German passports
Meeting the archivist in Krefeld. Behind him is the tapestry of local Jewish victims