Monday, 31 October 2016

An age-old plight returns for Jews in Brexit Britain

There are moments that sear themselves into the memory. One of those, for me, was the day I first set foot on German soil.

Throughout my childhood, I was far closer to my Jewish grandparents than my gentile ones (should is say goyishe ones?) So I have a deep-rooted memory of the collecting tin on a mantelpiece, with a map of Israel on the side (not the same map as today, I might underline). Coins dropped in it went to help the brave settlers carve their inspiring new country out of the wilderness. There was little talk of the fact that there had been people there before them, for whom it wasn’t a wilderness, but home surrounded by long cultivated farmlands.

On the other hand, there was theme to which conversation would return from time to time, not so often as to feel like an obsession, but often enough for a child to feel it was important: the relatives who disappeared, in particular the ninety members of my grandmother
’s extended family from her home city of Vilnius (Vilna, we called it), who vanished without trace during the German occupation of Lithuania.

We used language a little carelessly, just like those today who, in discussing Israel, allow their opposition to Likud or Zionists to slip, often unintentionally, into criticism of all Israelis and then, perhaps without noticing it, of all Jews. So back in those days, criticism of the Nazis easily became criticism of Germans, as though the words were synonyms, and often we lost track of the distinction between Germans in Hitler’s days and Germans since the war.

So it was no surprise that I reached the age of 24 without ever having visited the most significant power of Europe, home of its biggest economy. Somehow, some atavistic repulsion put me off.

Then came the day when I was staying with friends in Eastern France, as little as twenty minutes drive from the German border. They persuaded me to take a look at the other side.

Staufen: Faust sold his soul in a lovely village
They took me to Staufen im Breisgau, the village where Faust is said to have sold his soul to Mephistopheles. No choice could have been more appropriate: I had a sense of travelling to sup with the devil.

My friends drove a Range Rover. The car
’s passenger compartment is high off the ground, so getting out isn’t simply a matter of opening a door and swinging your legs out. There was a step on the way down, so setting foot on German soil really was a bit of a ritual. I paused with one foot on the step and the other just a few inches above the ground.

“How am I going to tell my mother about this?” I thought, and “how will she react?” And then my foot was down and I was in Germany, the nation from which the killers of our ninety relatives had come.

Since then, I have come to know the country far better. Why, my wife and I even lived there for nearly four years, and enjoyed our time in the country. I came to appreciate its warmth and courtesy, and to admire the way so many, including many of the young, have made quite some study of the Nazi period, and learned to understand the horror and shame of the behaviour of their grandparents’ generation. The words “nie wieder”, never again, mark the souls of many Germans. A majority, I feel. This makes them far more wary of any drift towards xenophobia and helps them resist it more effectively than do the British. Far too many people in Britain suffer from the illusion that the war against Hitler means they are immune to such an obscene deviation. They harbour a sense of superiority close to complacency which leaves them more at risk than most of drifting into excess.

Why am I talking about all this now?

Because under German law, as one element of the nation’s attempt to make partial atonement for Nazi crimes, those of its citizens who faced persecution under Hitler as well as their descendants, are entitled to claim German nationality.

Who from among the country’s victims would want to become citizens again? Well, a small number always have, apparently. There were about 25 applications a year from Britain until recently. Right now, however, there are 400 in the pipeline.

What’s changed?

Brexit, that’s what’s changed. Jews don’t like being bottled up. It hasn’t worked that well for them in the past. I worked for a while with a Jew who had three passports and the right to a fourth. Why, even I have two. Always good to have a bolthole. Why did I want one? It always struck me as possible Britain would leave the EU and I was keen to make sure I could get back there even if that happened.

So when Britain voted to leave, Jews descended from Germans began to wonder whether it might not be time to exercise the rights granted to them by the nation their ancestors fled. After all, today it’s Britain that’s building walls and Germany that is holding a door open.

Beautiful irony, isn’t it? The children and grandchildren of refugees from Germany now turn to that country for refuge.

Which, when you think of it, is a sad indictment of how far Britain has fallen.


Anonymous said...

I haven't even read this through. Why is that, well it's simply because if I despise anything it's the fiction and hate of religion nor thing I have vowed to totally eliminate from my life. It's simply full of hate and distrust, hate and death. Why oh why is man so stunningly niaive? What a twat is mankind.

David Beeson said...

Ah, well, if you had read it through you might have noticed it had nothing whatever to do with religion.

Anonymous said...

Apologies I have now read it through. I am not sure I can agree it has nothing to do with religion which does aperar to be a recurring theme about acseptance, rejection, of Jews and how you feel this interperates into the attitude of different nations actions. The difficult little problem is that reality often contradicts or clashes with ideals. People tend to say what they think they should say or what they believe others want to hear which often doesn't represent their true feelings and beliefs. Such are the pressures of society and modern media.

Claire Finn said...

Hi David
As far as I am aware, all German descendants are entitled to move to Germany. How is this different unless it applies to all Jews, not just descendants of German Jews?