Descendants of victims of Nazi persecution: No change for the expatriated

Those who escaped Nazi rule lost the German citizenship. Germany is refusing to grant citizenship to some of their offspring.

Marlene Rolfe reads

Marlene Rolfe has applied for a German passport Foto: Daniel Zylbersztajn

Hier finden Sie die deutsche Version des Textes „Ausgebürgert bleibt ausgebürgert“.

LONDON/BERLIN taz | In a café in the London Borough of Islington, Marlene Rolfe reads from an old document. With her modern pageboy haircut, her red lipstick and green woollen sweater, the 72-year-old artist has a contemporary and self-confident look. She’sholding a fragile sheet of paper, her mother's description, in German, of her imprisonment in Nazi Germany.

„Because she distributed leaflets in 1936, she was forced into various German institutions and was finally sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp“, says Marlene Rolfe about her mother, who came from Berlin. Ilse Rolfe, née Gostynski, was Jewish, and a communist. In May 1939 she was released on condition that she leave Germany immediately.

Thus, shortly before the outbreak of war, Ilse Rolfe found herself in Great Britain. In November 1941, she was deprived of her German citizenship by an order of the Reich, which applied to all German Jews living abroad. Ilse’s mother, who had not been able to escape, was murdered in 1942 in Belzec, the German extermination camp in Poland.

Between 1933 and 1945, tens of thousands of Jews had fled to the UK because of persecution by the Nazi regime. Only a few returned after the war. Ilse Rolfe was one of those who remained in the UK. She married an Englishman in March 1945; their daughter Marlene was born in January 1946.

Marlene Rolfe would like to become German

Ilse Rolfe returned to Germany only on holiday, despite feelings of nostalgia. „Throughout her life, she remained a true Berliner, who missed the Berlin atmosphere“, reports Marlene Rolfe. Despite all the scars that had marked her during the Nazi period, her mother's connection with her old homeland was so strong that, in 1975, she applied from London for repatriation, and obtained dual citizenship. Now her daughter, Marlene Rolfe, also wants a German passport. But that could be difficult.

Brexit has sharply increased the number of Britons applying for a German passport. They want to maintain their personal freedom of movement even after the UK has left the EU. A large proportion of the applicants are people who once fled the Nazi regime, or their descendants.

Even Eleanor Thom and two Children

Even Eleanor Thom must not become German Foto: Chris Dooks

To do so, she could apply through Article 116, paragraph 2 of the Basic Law, according to which „former German nationals who were deprived of their nationality for political, racial or religious reasons between January 30th 1933 and May 8th 1945, and their descendants“ can be naturalized.

From January to October 2018 alone, 1,228 applications were filed with German diplomatic missions in the United Kingdom citing this clause. There were 1.667 applications in 2017 in contrast to 684 in 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum. By comparison in 2015, according to the Federal Government, only 43 Britons sought“naturalization in the context of reparation“.

Marlene Rolfe submitted her application on 24 August 2017. She has not, to date, received a reply. Surely this is just a formal matter? But in her case it’s different because she belongs to a specific group for which this is a problem.

Reichsgesetz v Basic Law

It is about a complicated legal situation: anyone who lost their citizenship through Nazi injustice can in theory have it restored on application, even if they no longer live in Germany. But the prerequisite for this is that the applicant would have been entitled to a German passport if not for its unlawful confiscation during the Nazi period.

This means: if a person had lost their German citizenship for other reasons, or had never even had it, there is no entitlement to repatriation. And this applies to a child who was born in wedlock before April 1, 1953, if his/her German mother had married a foreigner before that date. Article 117, paragraph 1 of the Basic Law regulates how long the laws of the Federal Republic, which were contrary to the constitutionally guaranteed equal rights of men and women, were allowed to remain in force: no later than 31st March 1953.

Only men could pass on citizenship

Here again paragraph 17, section 6 of the Reich and Nationality Act (RuStAG) applies, according to which a woman lost her German citizenship when she married a foreigner.

According to the „principle of family unity“, ie the uniform nationality of all family members, the nationality of the wife always followed that of the husband. According to paragraph 4, section 1, only a German father was able to pass on citizenship to his children. A mother could only pass hers on if the child was born out of wedlock.

39-year-old author Eleanor Thom is experiencing in concrete terms exactly what that means. Following the Brexit referendum, the Edinburgh-based writer had applied for German citizenship along with her 75-year-old mother Betsy Thom. Recently, they received the Federal Administrative Office in Cologne’s response: their applications were rejected. Neither of them can understand that.

Eleanor Thom’s Jewish grandmother, Dora Tannenbaum, was born in 1916 in Berlin. In January 1939 she was able to escape from the Nazis with a domestic visa to Britain. However, she had to leave behind her illegitimate daughter, Ruth Rosa, who was born in September 1937 and deported to Auschwitz and murdered on 4th March 1943.

For Dora Tannenbaum, northeast Scotland became her second home. In 1942 she married Duncan Wilson; a year later, her second daughter Betsy was born. Right up to her death in 1980, she never wanted to return to Germany. „Yet my grandmother always thought of herself as German,“ says Eleanor Thom.

No chance for the Thom family

This does not benefit their descendants because Dora Tannenbaum's daughter Betsy would not have been able to become German at the time of her birth under the nationality law valid at the time – even without the deprivation of rights by the Nazis. After all, her father, Duncan Wilson, was British – and thus neither his wife nor their daughter could legally be German according to the patriarchal regulations of the Reich and Citizenship Act. Thus, neither Betsy Thom nor her daughter Eleanor are entitled to naturalization under Article 116 (2) of the Basic Law.

For Eleanor Thom, this is completely incomprehensible: „This old injustice, which does not recognize women, must be abolished as a matter of urgency.“

Sylvia Finzi smiles

Sylvia Finzi: Without right to German passport, because mother married an Italian Jew Foto: Privat

It took an astonishingly long time before the legislature was able to bring German nationality law into conformity with the equality requirement of the Basic Law. It required a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court, which formally changed the law on 1 January 1975. Since then German citizenship can be acquired by birth from either parent.

At that time, the Government also found a legal solution for a large proportion of the „old cases“: „Anyone born in wedlock between 31st March 1953 and the time this law came into force to a mother who was German at the time of the child’s birth can acquire German citizenship by declaring his or her wish to do so, if it wasn’t acquired by birth.“

But what about the children who were born before that date? They’re out of luck!

Ultimately, they have a claim to naturalization only if they would have been German according to the respective provisions of the Reich and citizenship law (RuStAG) or of the Nationality Act (StAG) at the time of their birth, had their father, mother, grandfather or grandmother not been expatriated. This is how it is officially expressed in best bureaucratic German in the „indications to the naturalization claim“ of the Federal Office of Administration.

A marriage of 1941 prevented naturalization today

Sylvia Finzi was born in London in 1948. Her mother, Elfriede „Friedel“ Kastner, came from Wuppertal-Elberfeld. She spent her childhood and youth in Berlin. Then the Nazis took power. „My mother escaped National Socialist Germany in 1938“, says Sylvia Finzi. Here too it was a domestic visa that saved the then 22 year old's life. Her fiancé wasn’t as lucky. He was murdered in Auschwitz.

In Britain, Friedel Kastner met the Milanese solicitor Giulio Finzi. Also Jewish, he had fled the Nazis from his Italian homeland to Great Britain. His mother Aurelia and his sister Emma died in Auschwitz. In 1941 Giulio Finzi and Friedel Kastner were married. In 1947 they received British citizenship. „As a child, my mother sang German songs to me“, recalls Sylvia Finzi. “Otherwise she only spoke English“.

Sylvia Finzi first got to know West Germany in 1970. At the same age as her mother had been when she fled Germany, she travelled to the country of the perpetrators – against the Final express wish of her parents. And for a while she stayed there. First she lived in Berlin, then in Munich, where, as a graduate painter and graphic artist, she taught in adult education. In 1979 she returned to London. In 2009 she moved to Germany again and stayed there for six years. She now owns an apartment in Berlin.

The German Embassy gives hope – in vain

After the Brexit referendum, Sylvia Finzi decided to apply for a German passport. „I very much hope that it will be possible to grant me German citizenship, as I will soon be unable to travel in and out of Germany as a European with my English passport,“ she wrote to the German Embassy in London in January 2017, and referred to her German-Jewish origin.

The embassy reacted immediately: it was „unfortunately the case that legitimate children of German mothers who were born before April 1, 1953 cannot be considered for naturalization under Art. 116 (2) GG,“ replied the employee. „However you’d be eligible for discretionary naturalization according to §14 StaG – I'm attaching the appropriate application form and leaflet with this e-mail.“

Elfriede Finzi with daughter

The Nazis escaped: The mother Elfriede Finzi with daughter Sylvia and acquaintances in English exile Foto: Privat

The new German Nationality Act (StAG) has been in force since 1st January 2000, as a result of which the Reichsgesetz and Nationality Law, originally dating from 1914, was fundamentally reformed. Not all injustices were eliminated. But at least the leaflet sent to Sylvia Finzi gave the impression that, in her case, there was an acceptable solution. It states that „a public interest in naturalisation“ is affirmed in people „born before 1 January 1975 as the child of a German mother and a foreign father“ and whose mother’s German nationality had been stripped for political, racial or religious reasons between 1933 and 1945.

The Federal Office of Administration also refers to taz's query that there is a „compensation option“ for children of German mothers and foreign fathers born before 1975. Due to „the constitutional disadvantage of this group of people who live abroad“ there exists „still today, a public interest in compensation“. For this purpose, the Federal Ministry of the Interior „in accordance with § 14 of the Nationality Law (StAG) has made it possible to claim naturalization if certain conditions are fulfilled „.

But that's not the case. The leaflet of the Federal Administrative Office was not entirely correct. There was a little detail missing. In the meantime an amended version has been issued. It explains that it is not enough if the child of someone persecuted by the Nazis was born before 1975 – he/she must also have been born after 23 May 1949. But for those who were born before the founding of the Federal Republic, the possibility of „discretionary naturalization“ offered to Sylvia Finzi is not available.

In mid-November 2018, the German embassy was obliged to correct its mistake. “Discretionary Naturalization is unfortunately not an option in your case“, the embassy employee wrote to Sylvia Finzi. „I'm sorry that when responding to your original e-mail of January 11th 2017, I overlooked that your date of birth was before the defining date, I'm very sorry – this mistake should not have happened.“ Sylvia Finzi has no understanding for this: „How is it possible that granting me German citizenship is not a matter of course?“

Those affected are joining forces

Because of the apparent injustices in the granting of German citizenship, an action group of around 100 affected people formed in December 2018, from across the UK and other countries such as the United States.

Felix Couchman, a London lawyer who co-ordinates the group, calls for swift action by the federal government, as many of the group’s members are already elderly; some of them are even direct victims of Nazi persecution. „The application and processing of our cases should be uncomplicated and completely obvious, given the past“, he insists.

This is a translation of „Ausgebürgert bleibt ausgebürgert“ that was published on January 14th. It's an article by Pascal Beucker, Daniel Zylbersztajn and Christian Rath.

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