My mother and grandmother fled Vienna in September 1938.
I don’t know whether they left by car or by train or whether it was day or night, but according to my grandmother’s fading brown passport with the swastika on front, they crossed out of Nazi territory into France near Strasbourg on Sept. 14. They made their way to Boulogne-sur-Mer, where they embarked for Great Britain on the 17th. They crossed the Channel and arrived at the seaside town of Folkestone. Five months later they sailed for the United States.
My grandmother, Margarete Beigel, was 35 at the time, and my mother was just a small child. I don’t know if they thought they’d return to Vienna eventually, but they certainly understood, or at least my grandmother did, that they were running for their lives.
Now, nearly 84 years later, strange to say, I’ve become a citizen of Austria myself. Under a law that went into effect in September 2020 — a tad late if you ask me — direct descendants of people persecuted by the Nazi regime may apply for citizenship.
My new passport arrived a few weeks ago. I was pleased to see it no longer includes the swastika. In a letter, the Austrian government described its ongoing efforts to address the “darkest hours of our history” by restoring “legitimate rights” to those who were “cruelly stripped of their identity.” The letter stopped short of an apology.
Now I know what you’re wondering, or should be wondering: Why on Earth would I want to become a citizen of a country that behaved so abominably?
By the time my mother and grandmother left, Austria had been annexed — not unwillingly — by Nazi Germany. Jewish Austrians were being fired from their jobs and attacked in the streets. Their property was being expropriated.
In November came Kristallnacht. Jewish-owned businesses were looted and burned, their owners imprisoned. Jews were conscripted into forced labor.
My grandmother’s mother and her sisters were eventually transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp outside Prague. My great-grandmother died there in 1942; her sisters were sent on to Auschwitz, where they too were killed. My grandmother’s father escaped to Argentina; she never saw him again.
There were 200,000 Jews in Vienna in 1938. At the end of the war, there were 2,000.
So why would I want Austrian citizenship, especially since I’ve visited the country only four times, don’t speak the language and don’t intend to move there?
Let me start with what didn’t motivate me: securing a place of refuge in case Donald Trump returns to power. People keep suggesting that must have been part of my reason, but honestly, I have no interest in abandoning the United States, nor do I think it would be right to leave when times are bad and democracy is imperiled.
As for what did motivate me, well, not much really in the beginning. The initial impetus, to be honest, was simply to obtain a passport from a European Union country for myself and especially for my children (who have also now received citizenship). It lets you live, study and work not just in Austria but in any EU country. That seemed useful.
But over time, to my own surprise, I became emotionally involved.
As I gathered my relatives’ birth, death, naturalization and travel documents, I began to understand better what had happened to them. I found myself in Prague, so on a whim I took a short day trip out to the haunted remains of the Theresienstadt camp in the Czech town of Terezin. No one alive, myself included, remembers my great-grandmother, but I couldn’t help feeling as I walked through the deserted camp that an act of apology and atonement was due for this forgotten woman.
Of course offering me citizenship isn’t adequate recompense. I wasn’t even the one who suffered; I grew up happy, safe, American. But it is something — an admission, at least, that my family members were persecuted, driven from their homes, murdered during a dark, shameful past. It changes nothing, but I’m grateful to today’s Austrian government for it.
The process made me think about African Americans and slavery reparations, and about the apology, and reparations, the U.S. made to Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. Whether such actions can truly bring closure or reconciliation, I can’t say. But I’ve come to believe they’re important, even when they’re mostly symbolic.
And of course, I thought about the millions of people who have fled Ukraine since the war there began — the greatest refugee crisis to face Europe since the days when my mother and grandmother were driven out. I thought of the families again being divided, the children who won’t see parents or grandparents again, and I was reminded of the Austrian government’s reference in its letter to “the darkest hours of our history.” Who knew Europe would face such dark hours again so soon?
More than 20,000 people worldwide have applied for citizenship under Austria’s new law.
When I received my new passport — making me officially a dual citizen of the U.S. and Austria — I felt briefly uneasy. Did it somehow dilute my attachment to my own country? Was I pretending to be someone I wasn’t? Would I soon be waiting comfortably in EU-citizens-only lines at the airport? Voting in Austrian elections? Dancing through the Alps in lederhosen?
For the moment I’m treating my new citizenship not as a gift or as meaningful compensation for past wrongs or as an exit visa from Trumpland, but as a small token of apology, a reflection of the complications and complexities of my family’s history and a reminder of the hold the past has on us, even as the generations pass.