Commentary: The Nazis murdered my ancestors. So why do I want to become a German citizen?

Commentary: The Nazis murdered my ancestors. So why do I want to become a German citizen?

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"Arbeit macht frei" sign (Labor will set you free) in Auschwitz I Nazi concentration camp, in Auschwitz, Poland, on September 3, 2017.

"Arbeit macht frei" sign (Labor will set you free) in Auschwitz I Nazi concentration camp, in Auschwitz, Poland, on September 3, 2017. (Somer/Abaca Press/TNS)

August 1942 was a catastrophic month for my German ancestors.

On Aug. 5, the Nazis herded my great-grandfather onto a train in Berlin bound for the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Five days later and 650 miles away in Paris, they rounded up my grandfather, who had tried to escape to France, and forced him onto a transport headed to Auschwitz.

Both were exterminated at their final destinations, along with my great-grandmother, great-aunt and a distant cousin.

I am a Jewish American. And on Jan. 21, my 60th birthday, I plan to visit the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., to be naturalized as a German citizen, along with my three African American children.

Why am I making this unlikely choice, a Jew coming full circle on a bitter German history?

Therein lies a story about Germany's terrible past, America's troubling present and what I hope will be my children's promising future.

My father was born in Berlin in September 1932. His German father, Heinrich Rothgiesser, was a prosperous Jewish businessman who owned a printing company; his mother, Edith, was a Jewish American citizen of German descent who was living in Germany at the time.

As Hitler rose to power during the first months of my father's life, my grandmother Edith grew increasingly concerned about the safety of Jews in Germany. With her American perspective, she perceived the threat more clearly than my grandfather Heinrich, who, like so many German Jews at the time, believed that Adolf Hitler surely couldn't last in the enlightened society of Germany's Weimar Republic.

In the spring of 1933, after the Reichstag burned and the Nazis opened the first concentration camp at Dachau, my grandmother made a brave and momentous decision. Unable to persuade her husband to flee Germany, she boarded a ship bound for America with her infant son. She never saw Heinrich again.

Three years ago, I happened across an article about a unique provision in Germany's constitution that was included as part of the nation's efforts to make restitution to victims of the Holocaust. This provision, known as Article 116 (2), allows Germans (and their descendants) who "were deprived of their German citizenship on political, racial or religious grounds" during the Nazi era from 1933-45 to apply to have their German citizenship restored. The ultimate deprivation of citizenship, of course, was being murdered in a concentration camp.

So I put in an application for myself and my children (unfortunately, spouses of descendants are not eligible). That meant gathering evidence about my ancestors and finding proof of their persecution. Because the Nazis kept meticulous records of the Jews who were sent to the camps - records that can be accessed at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington - I was able to find evidence of the actual transport that carried my grandfather to Auschwitz (Train No. D 901/12), the date my great-grandfather's corpse was shoved into a furnace at Theresienstadt (April 18, 1943), and many other grim details.

My decision to apply for German citizenship was not a political statement: I submitted the paperwork at the German Embassy in Washington four days before the November 2016 presidential election. But it was a decision borne, at least in part, of my growing unease about the racism that feels like it's been steadily worsening in our country ever since Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and the reactionary backlash against our first African American president began.

Certainly racism is nothing new in America; it's our original sin. Slavery is a living memory for my wife's family. She is as close to it as her late grandmother, whose own great-grandparents were enslaved.

That bitter legacy of white supremacy infests our legal, social and commercial institutions to this day, although for much of my life, social norms at least suppressed the most public expressions of hatred in our civic dialogues. But lately that racism has come roaring back into the open. The Charleston, S.C., church massacre in 2015, the August 2017 attacks in Charlottesville, Va., the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, repeated police killings of black men - these are only a few of the most headline-grabbing examples.

I understand that Germany is hardly immune from these trends. Racist and neo-Nazi attacks on Muslim immigrants and German Jews have risen in recent years, especially in cities in the former East Germany.

Yet it seems to me, from my occasional visits to the country, that Germany is at least attempting to forthrightly confront these exposed veins of illiberal, white supremacist and nationalist sentiments. Which is more, alas, than I can say for my own country today.

Our family is not actually intending to move to Germany. We are first and foremost Americans, committed to trying to make our nation a better place. But I would be lying if I did not admit that we can now take some comfort in knowing we have a place to go if our democracy, lately wobbling under profound strains, were ever to actually collapse - a prospect that no longer seems so unimaginable.

And on a much brighter note, now that my kids are citizens of the European Union, the doors are wide open for them to choose someday to live and work in Germany or any one of the other EU nations.

That's a rare privilege, one we will never forget, that we now enjoy only because my ancestors were forced into cattle cars during a terrifying week in August 78 years ago.



Howard Witt is a former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent.

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