Why a growing number of descendants of Holocaust victims are seeking EU citizenship

Several European countries--most notably Germany--are welcoming descendants of Third Reich victims

Stolen homes: In the 1930s, Germany used legal means to deprive Jews of citizenship

Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

About a year ago, Alex Yale became the citizen “of a country I’ve never been to, where people speak a language that I don’t understand.” To Yale—a 25-year-old management consultant from Connecticut—Austria seemed a faraway land indeed. His Jewish grandparents were born and raised in Vienna, but fled shortly before the Anschluss (Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria). They eventually made their way to the United States, after stints in Cyprus and what is now Tanzania. Once settled, they tried their best not to look back; their children followed suit.

But Yale is one of a growing number of North American descendants—children and grandchildren of Jewish Holocaust victims—who have recently obtained European citizenship through programs that undo wartime and postwar denaturalizations. Germany receives many of the North American applications (717 in 2012, up from 128 a decade ago), along with its Eastern European neighbours.

Few of the applicants are Holocaust survivors themselves. And few have plans to relocate to Germany—or to what was Hitler’s eastern hinterland. Instead, many claimants are the children and grandchildren of those refugees or survivors: young people who increasingly see the benefits of a European Union (EU) passport. It might have felt pointless to become a Pole in 2003, for instance; but in 2004, when Poland joined the EU, a Polish passport became a ticket to residence across the continent.

Historically, it was often former Soviet citizens who took advantage of these re-naturalization schemes. But globally minded North Americans are now lining up. In response, a veritable cottage industry of citizenship consultants has popped up, ready to guide would-be Europeans along the sometimes lengthy paperwork trail.

But almost 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, interest in acquiring European citizenship remains strikingly generational. Yale’s mother, Nancy, was less than enthused by her son’s österreichische Staatsbürgerschaft (Austrian citizenship). “It’s just really hard for me. It opens up old wounds,” she explains. Nancy was reared on the story of her parents’ European flight. Today, she insists, while she doesn’t “hate Austrians,” she has no desire to hold “something that is part of Austria.”

In September 1935, the Nazi Party held a rally in Nuremberg, Germany. The rally was a celebration—of Germany’s decision to renounce the Treaty of Versailles, which had demilitarized the country after the First World War—but it was also a step forward. On Sept. 15, Nazi officials announced a new measure: a “Reich Citizenship Law,” which rendered Jews something less than full Reich citizens—taking away their ability to vote or hold office. From then on, Jews found they could exit Germany on their passports, but could not return.

Throughout the 1930s, explains Eli Nathans, a history professor at the University of Western Ontario, different European countries used different legal means to deprive Jews of citizenship. In 1938, Poland refused to renew the passports of Polish Jews living outside of Poland. In 1939, Hungary revoked the citizenship of Jews who had acquired it after 1914. (France and Italy also denaturalized “foreign Jews.”)

The most direct step, however, was taken in November 1941, with Germany’s “Eleventh Decree to the Law on the Citizenship of the Reich.” The moment the law came into effect, Jews living outside of Germany were no longer German citizens. That pool, of course, included many Jews who had fled or whose new residence was a concentration camp over the German border.

In Germany, the means of reclaiming that stolen citizenship have been on the books for decades. In 1949, West Germany unveiled a new constitution. Its new “Basic Law” included a short clause—article 116, paragraph 2—specifying, “Former German citizens who, between Jan. 30, 1933, and May 8, 1945, were deprived of their citizenship for political, racial or religious reasons, and their descendants, shall be re-granted German citizenship on application.” Austrian law makes similar provisions; Article 58c offers citizenship to anyone who fled “because he had good reasons to fear or had actually suffered persecution by organs of . . . the Third Reich.” In many instances, Holocaust survivors are judged never to have lost their citizenship at all.

In other countries, where the entire Jewish population was not stripped of citizenship en masse, laws do not refer directly to the Holocaust—though other means can be used to reacquire lost citizenship. Sometimes the legal principle of jus sanguinis (right of blood) applies. Ukraine, for instance, allows descendants “to claim the citizenship of their forebears,” explains Natalia Holub, of Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs.

In recent years, several countries have pledged to streamline the process. In 2011, Greek President Karolos Papoulias met with Greek Holocaust survivors in Israel; he vowed to look into the possibility of granting Greek citizenship to their descendants. In 2008, Poland’s interior minister promised to address the complicated issue of renaturalization “quickly, very quickly.” Just last year, Spain upped the ante—by several centuries—by announcing that it would naturalize descendants of Jews forced out during the Spanish Inquisition.

Across the board, as the EU has expanded, citizenship claims have increased. Nathalie Tauchner runs the German Citizenship Project: a U.S.-based organization which guides North American Jews through the German citizenship process. (Tauchner says she has worked with about 500 Americans since 2006.) “Only once Germany became a member of the EU did [German citizenship] become attractive,” Tauchner insists. Many of her young clients pursue German passports “because they have an interest in living in Paris or studying in England.”

Liz Fink, a Ph.D. student at New York University, falls into Tauchner’s first category: she’s an aspiring Parisian. Fink acquired German citizenship in October 2010. Her Jewish grandfather was born in a small town in western Germany. Her great-grandfather fought for Germany in the First World War. Fink’s last memory of her now-deceased grandfather is of him crying over an old family photo album.

The German citizenship application process, Fink says, was straightforward. She brought some basic documents (birth certificates, passports and marriage certificates) to the German consulate in New York. “They were unbelievably helpful,” and the citizenship was hers with very little time invested.

That’s good news for a francophile whose specialty is French history. As a result of her German citizenship, Fink has been able to live and work freely in France. “It’s funny, but I got German citizenship to live in France.” That fact was enough to assuage Fink’s mother, who “has certainly never been to Germany, and doesn’t want to.”

The story was similar for this writer, who is able to cover European affairs for Maclean’s from London—hassle-free and equipped with free health care—as a result of her newly acquired Austrian citizenship.

But some new citizens do indeed return to the country listed on their passports. Tauchner estimates that about 30 per cent of her clients move to Germany for a spell, to study or to work. There, they find themselves with ample company. An estimated 200,000 Jews live in Germany today. That’s only a fraction of Germany’s pre-war Jewish population, but it does make Germany home to one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the world.

Israelis, in particular, are flocking to Berlin—many armed with new German passports. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reports that about 100,000 Israelis now hold German citizenship. Ironically, many of them view their German passports as a safeguard; an escape route, in case the situation in the Middle East escalates.

But not everyone will get the golden ticket. In many cases, citizenship proceedings are thwarted by now-obsolete laws. Tauchner points out a common obstacle: until 1953, she explains, German citizenship could only be passed down through one’s father. “So if you have a German grandmother and your parent was born in 1951, unfortunately, you will not be eligible.”

Julie Taub, an immigration lawyer in Ottawa, speaks bitterly of another obstacle. Taub’s Czech mother-in-law survived Auschwitz, and her Hungarian father-in-law spent the war in a brutal labour camp. After the war, they made their way to a displaced persons (DP) camp in Italy, where they met and had their first child, Taub’s husband, Hillel. “But because the DP camp was technically considered a transit camp, [Hillel] was not accorded Italian citizenship, and so he is not eligible for it now.”

Taub herself was born in Hungary, to Jewish parents. (Her mother and sister spent time in Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in northern Germany.) She thought about acquiring Hungarian citizenship, but changed her mind; she decided it would denigrate the memory of her parents.

Indeed, many of Taub’s generation—the children of Holocaust survivors—are similarly uncomfortable with the re-naturalization trend. They belong to a generation that still boycotts Volkswagen cars, Bayer medications and Siemens appliances—items produced by German companies that, to varying degrees, collaborated with Nazi authorities.

Their aversion might seem outdated. But Michael Marrus, a history professor at the University of Toronto, points out that the acquisition of passports has long been fraught with emotion. Before the First World War, people travelled from one country to the next with very little concern for officialdom. Only after that war were passports routinely required as a means of controlling the movement of citizens. “People became highly attentive to this, and I would say even obsessive,” says Marrus. They developed “passport anxiety: what is their nationality? Are their papers in order?”

For Alex Yale, the newly minted Austrian, his EU passport remains something to keep in his back pocket. So has he any upcoming plans to visit his new Vaterland? Yale is travelling to Israel in June for a wedding, “and I’ll be stopping in Vienna . . . for two hours.”