My Grandfather Fled the Nazis. I Moved to His Old NeighborhoodHistorians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, Nazism, immigration
We arrived in Amsterdam a year ago, making our way alone off the eerily uncrowded Boeing Dreamliner we’d ridden from Atlanta. Getting as far as Schiphol felt like an accomplishment. At the check-in counter in Houston, my husband’s U.S. passport had been rejected. “He doesn’t have a visa,” the unmasked Delta staffer said. “No Americans allowed into Schengen without a visa.” This was a repatriation flight, she explained, only for European citizens and residents.
We’d considered this contingency, though only really Stage One of it. What if my husband—the only non-European among us—weren’t allowed on the plane? Would we leave without him? If we stayed, where would we go, and for how long?
“Here,” I said, pulling up the page of immigration information that the woman at the Dutch consulate had advised me to screenshot. “This says immediate family members of E.U. citizens are exempted from the ban.” And then—another tip from the Embassy help line—I produced the marriage certificate that had been gathering dust in a cabinet for years. The woman studied it, nodded, placed one call, then another. “All right,” she said. “Just be sure he gets a visa as soon as you land.”
My insides unclenched: first obstacle vanquished. This wasn’t hard. It wasn’t like leaving your office with only a coat and a briefcase stuffed full of papers and never returning to the country of your birth. We tiptoed through the same near-crisis at Atlanta—“I’m sorry, but the computer is denying your husband’s passport”—and again at Amsterdam, where the sole immigration officer manning the entry point at what is usually one of Europe’s busiest airports asked to see proof that we were really moving to Germany.
“I have a receipt from our movers?” I offered. “And we’re travelling with four cats?” The man shrugged, already tired of his vigilance, and waved us into baggage claim, where we were again the only passengers.
We’d made it to the Netherlands. The German border was still shut to us, so we’d stay at my brother’s house in Utrecht until we could make our way overland to Germany, whose consul had said that my husband wouldn’t be admitted, even with our marriage certificate, because we were coming from a country with such a high rate of coronavirus infection. The border was shut—what a phrase! How the world had changed. Because, of course, I, a New World Jew raised to believe that America was the only country where Jews were truly safe, recognized the strangeness of taking refuge in the Netherlands, en route to Germany of all places. And yet here we were.
When we were in high school, my brother learned that Germany was restoring nationality to the descendants of its Jewish citizens who’d been denaturalized by the Nazis. Our paternal grandfather fell into this category; he had fled Berlin for the U.S. less than two months before Kristallnacht, at the age of thirty-nine. In 1999, after years of retrieving and notarizing documents, I became a German citizen.
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