WAITING FOR JUSTICE
My grandmother Ilse was born to a Jewish family in 1933 in the state of Lower Silesia in then Germany, present day Poland , the same year that the Nazis came to power. Her maternal grandfather was born in 1870 in Oswiecim, Austrian Poland, as it was called at that time, a town that later on, upon change of sovereignty to the German government, was infamously renamed Auschwitz. It was in this town where years later the life of her oldest uncle was taken away, in the most inhuman of ways, in perhaps the most famous genocide in modern history. This story, however, is the story of Ilse and her family, who were able to escape this same fate in time by taking a leap into the unknown, with little more than their personal belongings, to establish a life far away from their homeland. It is the story of how in history, even the most obvious injustices sometimes are not remediated, and instead are perpetuated, generation after generation.
Ilse’s earliest childhood memories in her motherland include her favorite toys, a wooden horse and fully decorated dollhouse and a big park with a lake where ducks swam during the summer before they migrated south every year to avoid the harsh cold of the winter. They also include being forced to greet, from the comfort of her balcony, a cold enigmatic man, with a now unmistakable moustache, by extending her small right arm into the air and shouting out loud “Heil Hitler”, while he paraded down the street. Street after street, town after town, in a country that now considers it a criminal offense to imitate what my grandmother was forced to do when she did not even understand some of the basic facts of life.
She also remembers how in 1937, at just four years of age, her family realized they had to leave Germany before they were sent to extermination camps like her uncle would be. Her mother packed their most expensive valuables inside balls of yarn and, with a tourist visa on hand, left everything they knew and had and headed to South America on a cruise ship, a long trip of which she only remembers being sea sick and landing first in Panama where she regained her senses after tasting her first pineapple. They then travelled further south to Caracas where they met fellow Jews. They stayed there and started to accommodate to a new culture, a new language, and a new life. Ilse remembers how her family faced hard financial circumstances, having to pawn their belongings which arrived from Germany months after, never to see them again. She also remembers a fire that consumed her apartment when her mother was in the hospital giving birth to her younger brother Franz in 1939. Soon after their arrival, in 1941, Ilse and her family were stripped off from their German citizenship by the “Eleventh Decree to the Law on the Citizenship of the Reich” which stipulated that Jews living outside Germany could not be German citizens. They remained stateless for years to come, and even attempted to apply for Polish citizenship after the end of the war, as their hometown ended up becoming a Polish city. They failed, as the Polish government did not recognize them as Polish citizens because they were born in what was Germany at that time.
Ilse’s memories in her new home include sharing a small apartment with another Jewish family with whom they did not get along; how her mother was bullied at work, in a factory making overalls, for not speaking the language properly. The feeling of embarrassment at school for having to wear second-hand low quality cloths, and how slowly but surely she felt disconnected from her own religion and culture, to the point where she decided she wanted to convert to Catholicism, despite her parents’ attempts to preserve their own culture. This rebellious move further ostracized her family from the Jewish community, isolating them from all neighbours and relatives.
In 1950, still stateless, Ilse married a non-German Catholic and gave birth to her first daughter. Soon after, in 1953, Ilse’s German citizenship, as well as her brothers’, was reinstated by the new German government in an attempt to rectify Hitler’s racist law. However, she was not able to pass her German citizenship to her daughter, as she was not considered to be German before 1953. After 1953 my grandmother gave birth to five more children, and to her surprise, none of them were eligible to obtain the German citizenship either. According the the German nationality law at the time, and until 1974, German citizenship was only passed along through the paternal line. During this same period, Franz gave birth to two daughters, who despite having been born to a male German citizen born outside Germany, would have been eligible to apply.
After 1974, my grandmother separated from my Catholic grandfather, and decided she wanted to convert back to Judaism. She did so, and was welcomed back into the Jewish community, where she eventually married again. With her new non-German Jewish husband, they decided to adopt two Venezuelan children, who, ironically, were eligible to become German citizens, as the law had changed and did not discriminate by gender anymore. Years later, in 2014, when her older daughters and son attempted to apply for German citizenship, they were told, again, that given their year of birth and the law at the time, they were still ineligible. Germany’s attempt to rectify a racist law has failed Ilse’s natural born descendants because of Germany’s own sexist past. However, Ilse and all her descendants still hope that eventually the German government will recognize its discriminatory mistakes, which has affected thousands of World War survivors and their descendants around the world, that justice will be served, and that our German birthright will be finally recognized.