I’ve be­come a Ger­man, 80 years af­ter Kristall­nacht

Robin Lustig, a for­mer se­nior Ob­server jour­nal­ist, will never use his new pass­port, but sees it as atone­ment for Nazi crimes

The Observer - - Focus - Robin Lustig is a jour­nal­ist and broad­caster. He pre­sented The World Tonight on BBC Ra­dio 4 be­tween 1989 and 2012.

Eighty years ago, on the night of 9 November 1938, tens of thou­sands of Ger­man Jews were ar­rested in a na­tion­wide pogrom that be­came known as Kristall­nacht, the Night of Bro­ken Glass, be­cause of the thou­sands of win­dows that were shat­tered in Jewishowned shops, busi­nesses, homes and syn­a­gogues.

My fa­ther and grand­fa­ther went into hid­ing the fol­low­ing day, to es­cape ar­rest. Five months later, in April 1939, my fa­ther left Ger­many and sought refuge in Bri­tain. His par­ents es­caped a year later and fled to Por­tu­gal.

Last week my son, daugh­ter, brother and I went to the Ger­man em­bassy in Lon­don to pick up our cer­tifi­cates of Ger­man nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion. We are now Ger­man cit­i­zens. (We re­main, of course, UK cit­i­zens as well, and I have no in­ten­tion of ever us­ing a Ger­man pass­port.)

My fa­ther died last year at the age of 98 but he knew that we had ap­plied for nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion, and un­der­stood our rea­sons. He could have ap­plied as well but saw lit­tle point. Hav­ing served in a top-se­cret unit of Bri­tish mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence dur­ing the sec­ond world war, and hav­ing lived in the UK all his adult life, he was every inch a proud and loyal Bri­tish ci­ti­zen.

He lost his Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship in 1941, when the Nazis in­tro­duced a de­cree that stripped any Ger­man Jew liv­ing out­side Ger­many of their cit­i­zen­ship. How­ever, once the Nazis had been de­feated, new leg­is­la­tion en­abled any for­mer Ger­man cit­i­zens who had been de­prived of it on po­lit­i­cal, racial, or re­li­gious grounds, as well as their de­scen­dants, to ap­ply to have cit­i­zen­ship restored. Hence our trip to the em­bassy.

But if I don’t in­tend to make use of it, why did I bother? First, be­cause af­ter the Brexit ref­er­en­dum it was im­por­tant to show that I re­tained a deep at­tach­ment to my Euro­pean iden­tity. I have lived and worked in France, Spain and Italy, and I re­sented Theresa May’s say­ing to the Con­ser­va­tive party con­fer­ence two years ago: “If you be­lieve you’re a ci­ti­zen of the world, you’re a ci­ti­zen of nowhere.” Sec­ond, be­cause one day my son or daugh­ter might want to live and work in the EU. Un­til the Brexit ref­er­en­dum they had al­ways as­sumed that they would have that right. Af­ter March, how­ever, they are un­likely to re­tain it if they are no longer cit­i­zens of an EU mem­ber state. So for them, it is en­tirely pos­si­ble that Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship could be of real ben­e­fit.

But third, how bet­ter to demon­strate – for my own sat­is­fac­tion if not for any­one else’s – that the Nazis’ geno­ci­dal project ut­terly and to­tally failed. If post­war Ger­many, which has so im­pres­sively con­fronted the full hor­ror of its own his­tory, en­ables us to undo at least a tiny part of the im­mense harm done to our fore­bears, then it would surely be un­gen­er­ous to refuse the of­fer of an out­stretched hand.

As it hap­pens, my fam­ily marks an­other an­niver­sary this month. In November 1941, 77 years ago, my ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Ilse Cohn, was de­ported to Lithua­nia from her home­town of Bres­lau (now Wrocław in Poland), and mur­dered by a Nazi death squad in Kau­nas. My mother, Ilse’s only child, had es­caped to Eng­land barely a month be­fore the out­break of war, but Ilse’s ap­pli­ca­tion to come with her had been re­fused be­cause, at the age of 41, she was con­sid­ered too old.

I have vis­ited Kau­nas, and I have stood at the edge of the killing field where my grand­mother and 2,000 other Jews, in­clud­ing 150 chil­dren, were mur­dered on the same day. The men who shot them were prob­a­bly Lithua­nian, not Ger­man – and the com­man­der of the death squad, SS colonel Karl Jäger, was Swiss. (He es­caped ar­rest at the end of the war and lived qui­etly as a farm worker un­til he was dis­cov­ered in 1959. He killed him­self while await­ing trial.)

Both my par­ents al­ways in­sisted that they felt a deep sense of gratitude to Bri­tain for hav­ing taken them in when their lives were in dan­ger. In 1989, on the 50th an­niver­sary of their ar­rival here, they threw a “thank you” party for all their friends, and my fa­ther’s speech moved sev­eral guests to tears. In his mem­oir he wrote: “I call Great Bri­tain my ‘home coun­try’, as I feel at home here, and I am glad this is where I lived my life, rather than any­where else.”

I feel the same. I could have cho­sen to live in many dif­fer­ent coun­tries, but in all my trav­els dur­ing a long ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist and broad­caster – nearly 90 coun­tries and still count­ing – I have never found any­where I would rather call home. So in no sense do I re­gard my newly ac­quired Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship as a re­place­ment for my Bri­tish iden­tity. It is an ad­di­tion, and an ex­plicit re­pu­di­a­tion of the idea that one’s iden­tity must be rigidly con­fined to na­tional bound­aries.

Iwas born and brought up in Bri­tain, as a Bri­tish ci­ti­zen. I am not blind to its faults, nor do I deny its many virtues. But ask me how I iden­tify my­self and I will re­ply with a long list: I’m Bri­tish, I’m Euro­pean, I’m a Lon­doner, I’m a male, I’m a jour­nal­ist, I’m a fa­ther and a hus­band.

Less than two weeks be­fore I ac­quired my Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship, a gun­man in Pitts­burgh mur­dered 11 Jews in a syn­a­gogue. The fol­low­ing day I re­ceived an email from a woman I met four years ago on a visit to Ger­many with my fa­ther.

She wrote from Magde­burg, an an­cient univer­sity town where some of my fa­ther’s fam­ily had lived, and from where three of his cousins were de­ported to There­sien­stadt and Auschwitz. This is what she said: “It is 80 years since the syn­a­gogues were at­tacked here, and we all know that it was the pre­lude to mil­lions of mur­ders. Since 1945, and every year since then, when we re­mem­ber what hap­pened, we re­alise how im­por­tant it is to fight back from the be­gin­ning.”

Serv­ing in Bri­tish mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence and liv­ing here all his adult life, my fa­ther was every inch a proud, loyal ci­ti­zen

A 1940s pho­to­graph of the writer’s fa­ther, Fritz Lustig.

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