This morning, in a private no-frills ceremony at the Consulate General of Germany in Los Angeles, I got to do something that most Jews have only dreamt of. I got to – in my own small way – give the middle finger to the ghost of Adolf Hitler on behalf of myself and my family. Today, I reclaimed the birthright denied to my ancestors by the Nazi regime. Today, I became a German citizen.
The Los Angeles consulate
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Paul Hertz was a member of the German parliament, the Reichstag. He was also Jewish. In 1934, he was stripped of his citizenship by the Nazis, and he and his family escaped across the border in the middle of the night, settling temporarily in Prague before making their way to the United States. His son, Fred Berg, was stripped of his citizenship in 1935, likely in retaliation for his father escaping Hitler.
After the defeat of the Nazis, a new German constitution was written, and this new Germany tried to rectify at least a few of the wrongs done by its predecessor. Article 116 of the constitution enables descendants of those stripped of their German citizenship to claim it on their behalf.
Now this is not without some controversy. First of all, the article as written (and sadly, as applied) only allows for direct descendants of German males, within two generations, stripped of their German citizenship prior to obtaining another citizenship. This means that since my maternal grandfather had enough foresight to leave Germany in 1934, and to obtain American citizenship in 1939 – before all German Jews were universally stripped of their German citizenship in 1941 – I was not eligible to apply through that side of my family. (I would have been eligible through my maternal grandmother, but while matrilineal descent applies today, it does not retroactively.)
My paternal family knew about Paul Hertz’s being stripped of his citizenship in 1934, but he being three generations back (my great-grandfather), I also was not eligible that way, and in fact, my cousin who also applied for citizenship prior to my application was initially rejected for this being too far back. However, an incredible consular official here in Los Angeles discovered a document listing my – our – grandfather, Fred Berg, being singled out for loss of citizenship in 1935, well before he acquired American citizenship. Hence my application was approved, along with my cousin’s upon appeal.
After the war, Paul returned to Germany and rejoined the government, helping to rebuild the country he still loved. Fred, along with his three children, my father among them, spent two years in Berlin working with that new democratic government in forming trade unions. For his work, Paul was awarded the highest civilian honor given by the German government, had a neighborhood named after him, and has a statue of him in that neighborhood.
Today, wearing Paul’s medal in his honor, and on behalf of all of my ancestors, eligible or not, I reclaimed my birthright, once again establishing German roots for the family. I don’t know if I will ever live in Germany, but I do intend to try to learn a bit of the language – right now I am limited to counting to twenty – as well as of the politics for a country in which I can now vote should I move there at least part-time. I am grateful to the German government for allowing this day to happen, to my friend at the Consulate for going above and beyond to ensure that my case was approved, and to my cousin for going through this process with me. I am thrilled to have a second country to call home, and honored to represent the next generation of German Jewry.
My great-grandfather’s medal looks good on me!
To Paul, Fred, Ilse, Hardy, Gaby, and all of my other German ancestors, I hope this is a decision that will make you happy, while respecting the sacrifices you and the rest of our family made during this terrible time in history. I hope to make you proud.