Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A journey to myself: almost there.


It is one thing to be researching the past for a work of fiction, it is quite another thing to be searching it for one's own past. I sent my family name out into cyberspace, not sure what was going to come back. Not much did, to begin with. I found a reference to my father's business. I found a list of the books my mother had translated from German to English. Nothing significant.

I emailed the German Embassy to suggest that I was probably not going to be able to apply for restored citizenship after all as I was not in possession of the correct documentation. Privately I decided to give up. The Embassy's reply, when it came, was unexpected and heartening:

''Dear Ms Hedges,
if you are not in possession of the documents you can nevertheless apply according to Art. 116 and submit all documents or copies of documents you find. The application process is free of charge.
Best regards''

I resumed the search. And then someone on Facebook suggested I try Yad Vashem - the organisation that has painstakingly listed the names and last known details of every Jewish person who perished during the Holocaust. So I found their site online. I typed in the names of my paternal grandparents. I pressed send. And unbelievably, there they were on the database. Alma and Raphaele.

Their names were on pages of testimony from survivors, on a deportation list from Berlin, on a list of murdered Jews from Germany. The map accompanying their entries gave their final destination as Katowice, in Poland. The location of Auschwitz concentration camp. Under the heading: Fate, one word: murdered.

When I got over the shock of what I was looking at, I tried to recreate what I'd been told about them. It was so pitifully little. They were affluent members of their community. They were highly educated; they had read Goethe and Schiller. They had a maid called Kate who spoiled my father and his brother with sweets and cake.

I also knew that, despite the huge privations they were beginning to suffer, Alma made up a food parcel every fortnight to send to my father in England. Like all Jewish refugees, he was interned here for the duration of the war, meaning that he was forbidden to work and was dependent upon charity and meagre handouts from the state.

I thought about their final days together as the net closed upon the remaining Jewish population in Berlin. How two intellectual and cultured individuals were marched out of their comfortable family home, pushed into an over-crowded cattle truck, denied food and water and then, when they reached their destination, brutally separated from each other and summarily gassed, because the government of that time had decreed they weren't human beings any more.

And when I had stopped weeping, I thought about all the words we use to describe those other people, the ones that are not us: migrant, foreigner, immigrant, refugee. Jew, Arab, Muslim. Words that we think give us permission to hate. And I felt great sadness that nothing much has been learned.

So my journey to discover myself reaches its final stages. At the end of this month, I shall make an appointment with the German Embassy to present my documents. I hope that what I have discovered is enough to convince them to restore my family's citizenship and ensure that my descendants will forever be members of the European family to which they have a right to belong.

I will let you know their decision in due course.
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43 comments:

  1. So very sad, but so important to remember.

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    1. The parallels with the EUref debate, especially Farage's rhetoric sent a chill down my spine.

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  2. Carol, I wept reading this. One of so many stories of families of all races and creeds utterly destroyed by hatred, ignorance and, yes, fear. Will we ever learn to live together in peace, accepting of differences and celebrating what unites us.

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    1. We seem to be unable to do so. The 'it won't happen here' mentality prevails...

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  3. Oh my goodness. I was crying as I read this post, Carol. How emotional for you. I love researching my family tree but my lot were clothiers in Yorkshire! I hope you are able to use this research in a writing project as its a story that needs to be shared - for so many reasons xxx

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    1. You see why I said you need to write your story down...I knew so little because they wouldn't talk about it!

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  4. We must never flinch from telling such stories. Each one should come with floods of tears - and with a sense of profound guilt from those who stood by that such things could ever happen. Only if we dare to digest that reality can we begin to believe that we might stop it happening again.

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  5. Dear Carol, I was very touched reading your post... And to think that the world has still not learned. Good luck with your citizenship application. :)
    Dani

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  6. A moving story, Carol. I hope you succeed. Best wishes.

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  7. When hearts ache too hard for water to seep from swollen eyes. When pain of words becomes larger than a soul can bear, we try unsuccessfully to comprehand the enormity of the Holocaust.

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  8. And now you know why I'm not proud of being German. (ignoring the fact that I simply cannot be proud of something I've done nothing for).

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    1. I think, given the racism and vileness in the UK, unleashed and legitimized by Farage/Johnson et al, I feel that same way about the UK - when, as a result of posting the second blog, I am tweeted 'F*** off Jewish B**' by a so-called 'Corbynista' on Twitter...I'd say we are well down the same road.

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    2. "Idiot" would be sufficient no need to link this person to Corbyn. But this (the Corbyn part) is precisely why I don't comment Israeli politics. As soon as I would criticise I would be called "Nazi". Thus I auto-censor

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  9. How very moving. I wish you all the best in your efforts to reclaim your citizenship x

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    1. Thank you Rose..it would mean something 'good' coming out of the past, and the immediate past.

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  10. Beautifully written and so important for us to remember... Thank you x

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  11. Carol, How powerfully emotional it must have been to read those names on the list. It is still enormously difficult to understand how one human being could be so hateful to another and how so many others stood by and allowed it to happen.

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    1. Thanks Bernadette ...if you read the comment I left under Markus' comment, you will see where I am coming from.

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  12. I've been following your last posts Carol and thinking a lot about your journey into your family history. From this uncertain and absurd moment in our own day you were inspired to discover some disturbing and tragic facts in your past. It must be a very emotional moment for you and I think you are very brave. Thanks for sharing this on your blog. That old saying about there being some good in every thing that happens applies here too I think. You have found a different connection with your past and have a stronger understanding of who you really are.

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    1. Thanks Tonia. I am cut of from my family (for many reasons) and this link with the past is like a golden thread stretched across a deep chasm. It is unbearably painful but at the same time, a very important connection.

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  13. I very much hope that you succeed with the German Embassy.

    And I pray that humanity will learn from what has happened to too many 'undesirables' before it is too late.

    I'm emigrating to the US, where the Native Americans suffered their own decimation like the Trail of Tears. Have Americans learned?

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  15. barbtaub.com (https://barbtaub.com/) has left a new comment on your post "A journey to myself: almost there.":

    Carol, I cried reading this. I remember when my children were small, trying to find the words to explain why every living person their father was related to could fit around one dining room table.

    A few years ago, my father-in-law finally went back to the town in Poland that his family had left just before the war, headed to America with their young children. Of the huge family and bustling town they left behind, not one person is known to have survived the holocaust. When he finally returned, the town had a new name. The old synagogue where his grandfather had been rabbi was now a drugstore. His family's hotels, stores, and businesses were gone or had different names.

    By a miracle of chance, he happened to meet a teenage girl who had done her senior project on a box of pictures found in what used to be an old photography studio. There were no names, but he was able to find a few pictures of his mother as a girl. One shows her in a group of about fifteen of her friends. She was the only one to survive the war.

    As American Jews, we don't feel a particular affinity to a Europe that never fought on our behalf. So it's a surprising concept to me that you are choosing to affirm an identity and sense of belonging to Germany. But your post explains it and so for your sake I hope you'll be successful.

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    1. I think American Jewry is more affiliated to Israel ..Europe is far away. We spoke German at home, my mother cooked German food so I was brought up with the concept of NOT being British. I never totally identified with the UK, and still don't, in one respect. The thought that my grandchildren may be restricted to visas, permits and have to pay to work and study abroad is anathema to me. My daughter worked in Afghanistan for 3 years..my son-in-law lived in Argentina. They are both 'global citizens' in the real sense of the world. I want my descendants to feel part of that, not part of some small island with a small island mentality.

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  16. Hello Carol, I always expect an amusing post from you, so to see something so moving, tragic and heartfelt was a real surprise. I agree with all you say about Farage. At least you can always be proud of your grandparents. In the mirror of history it's the monsters who perpetrated the holocaust (and the holodomor in Ukraine) who will be reviled. A rivetting post, thanks for it

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  17. I have chills reading this. What a beautiful, horrible discovery. Thank you for sharing this. <3

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    1. welcome. it has been quite a trip..and is still ongoing...

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  18. This is so moving - especially in light of what is happening all around us now. I hope you find what you're looking for

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  20. Wow, what a story. I saw the picture on your blog and knew i wanted to read it. Hope you get your family their citizenship. #sundayblogshare

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    1. thanks, Carol I shall be emailing them next week.

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  21. Very sad, Carol. I am glad you learned the truth and hope your family can regain German citizenship, though. This current wave of racism is just appalling. I don't advise you to watch any of the American Republican Convention, but let me just say, it's a sick thing.

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    1. I cannot understand how any sane person can fall for Trump's rhetoric ..mind, they fell for Nigel Farage over here. It is scary, this lurch to the right..and it's happening globally as well.

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    2. As an American Citizen, Many of us have the same concerns that Carol has expressed re Farage. Only ours has to do with the Republican Donald Trump -- who many of us are convinced he is fascist! He has a large neo nazi following which is equally distrubing. I pray that the craziness in both our countries settle down. Best of luck Carol

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    3. I hope so too, or that 'good people' will stand up and be counted. This didn't happen to my family in Nazi Germany. It is too easy to keep one's head down...but eventually, it *will* happen to you!

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  22. Unbelievably poignant.
    I hope the whole process is successful, and, indeed, helps you feel "whole".
    Family History can be inspiring, fascinating and heartbreaking. *sigh*

    On a side note: The Lebanon is just a tiny bit bigger than Cornwall - and the Lebanon houses and looks after TWO MILLION refugees. I know you, like me, wont stand for anyone saying "there are too many of them coming here!"

    John

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    1. Indeed. The only difference between a refugee and you and me is: luck!

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  24. I missed this because I was away, Carol. I can only begin to imagine what you felt on finding that information. And yes, I wonder if we will ever learn...labels are far too easy to stamp on people and we do it more and more, not less. I hope you make the restored citizenship happen! This was immensely moving.

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    1. Thanks Val. I hope so more for Hannah and the babies!

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  25. Your story brought a tear to my eye and a deep sadness to my heart. I am ashamed for what this country has become, that you no longer feel welcome here, but absolutely feel you are right to restore your German nationality. I lived happily in Germany for many years and wish I had stayed, so that I could shed the British nationality of which I am now ashamed. I wish you all the very best for your future.

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