As It Happens

Brexit prompts descendants of Jews who fled Nazis to reclaim German citizenship

Descendants of Jews who fled Nazi Germany and came to Britain are now applying for German citizenship — thanks to Brexit.
Oliver Marshall's grandmother, Klara Rosenberg and his mother, Liselotte, in 1924. On the right, is Liselotte's replacement birth certificate - a document that was key to his successful German citizenship claim. (Oliver Marshall)
Listen6:56
For those who enthusiastically voted "Yes," Brexit is all about creating a bright future. But for some Brits, it's meant embracing a complicated past.

In the wake of the surprising vote to leave the European Union, some descendants of Jews who left Nazi Germany and found refuge in the UK are now applying for German citizenship.

Oliver Marshall is one of them. His grandparents came to settle in Britain, after fleeing Germany in 1941. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why he decided to apply for citizenship. Here is part of their conversation.

Oliver Marshall is one of hundreds of British Jews who are applying for German citizenship following the Brexit vote. (Oliver Marshall)

Carol Off: Mr. Marshall, how does it feel to be German?

Oliver Marshall: [Laughs] Oh god, you've floored me. To be honest, it would help if I spoke German. I would probably feel more at ease being German if I could do more than read a menu. But it's also rather liberating. I'm German more so because it guarantees me European Union citizenship. This is because of Brexit. People are doing this. People are becoming German, all kinds of other nationalities, as a reaction to what seems to be the likelihood that tens of millions of British people are going to have their EU citizenship taken from them.
CO: But I guess when we talk about others who are finding dual citizenship in order to be part of Europe, it's different, in your case and other descendants of Jews who fled persecution and death in the Holocaust. I know you were born in the UK, but how difficult is it to do this — to take this German citizenship?

OM: Psychologically, for me it wasn't difficult at all. I think there is a generational divide. People of my mother's generation, my mother is 93 and I know people in their 80s who were refugees, I think some of them have found this to be rather difficult. But my mother, for example, had no problem with this whatsoever. She was amused. She just finds it kind of kind of bizarre that we are doing this. She understands the practical purpose. She has no problem with us being German. She has made peace with Germany long, long, long ago.

Oliver Marshall's grandmother, Klara Rosenberg (1894-1987) with his mother, Liselotte Marshall (b. 1923). (Oliver Marshall)

CO: Can you tell us a bit about the history. What happened to your family during the Holocaust?

OM: My grandparents lived in a small town near Frankfurt, a place called Usingen. My grandfather was an apple wine maker and dealer. They were Germans. My grandfather was a decorated soldier in World War One. Then the Nazis came along and everything changed. The little town was a particularly Nazi town, but everyone knew everyone. They left the town in 1938 when the business was attacked and subsequently taken away. They moved to Frankfurt, a larger centre where they could be a little bit more anonymous. There they waited for exit visas. They left Germany in April of 1941. My grandmother lost a brother, a sister and their spouses and their children. So my grandmother was more directly affected and I think that quite naturally affected her feelings towards Germany and Germans later on. She always expressed absolute hatred of Germany and Germans.

Oliver Marshall's grandfather, Siegfried Rosenberg (1886-1953) in Central Park, New York, in the late 1940s. (Oliver Marshall)

CO: So how would she feel if she knew that you had reclaimed your German citizenship?

OM: She probably would not have been happy. But I'm told by my mother that my grandfather would definitely have been fine by it, so they sort of balance each other out I feel.

CO: The German authorities are just astonished by how many applications they are getting under this program. German citizens, Jews who fled the Nazis and found refuge elsewhere, have always been able to come back and reclaim their citizenship — even their descendants. But they've never had so many people. Usually there are a couple dozen a year. Now there are hundreds who are applying. What are you hearing from other Jews about how difficult this decision has been?

This painting used to hang in the office of Oliver Marshall's grandfather in Usingen, Germany. It is one of the very few objects that he retrieved after the war and it depicts a very typical scene of a Apfelweinstube (apple wine pub). (Oliver Marshall)

OM: My generation, people that I know who are of German-Jewish background, they tend to find it strange. But the generation of my daughter and my nephews and niece, they are all in their early '20s, they are just so distant from it. I've been realizing how incredibly ignorant they are of what happened. In some ways, that's kind of good, but I think I'll have to sit down and talk to them about it. Especially now that they hold German passports. In some ways, they may even know less than a young German of their age. They, of course, know why their grandmother left. But it is so abstract. I think the younger generation see it just as an opportunity.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Oliver Marshall.

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