Congratulations!” says the German embassy official, with a benevolent smile. “You are now officially a German citizen.” It’s a late summer’s morning in Belgrave Square in London, and sunlight illuminates the white-walled room. She hands me my certificate, together with the gift of a pin badge depicting conjoined British and German flags to mark my new dual nationality, and a little bag of gummy bears, beloved, she tells me, of all German children.
Tears begin to stream down my face. I did not expect to have this reaction. I have been waiting for this document – my escape from Brexit – for nearly three years, after sourcing almost a century’s worth of documents. The identity that was stolen from my grandparents by the Nazis is now being given back to me by the German government, a baton passed down through history.
I go to the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror, reciting aloud several times: “I. Am. German.” The words inhibit my tongue like a gobstopper. Then I begin to laugh because this feels so surreal. To be “naturalised” as a German is an oxymoron. I am Jewish, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I am British, a Londoner. I have taken on many new identities during my life – as wife, as chronically ill patient, as divorcée and as mother – but this one doesn’t fit. When I try to think of myself as German the cognitive dissonance clouds my mind like radio static.
What is being German to me? It’s a constipated Martin Luther, straining to instigate the Reformation. It’s all the great composers: Beethoven and Bach and Brahms (we won’t mention Wagner). It’s the writings of Kant and Nietzsche and Goethe, and the paintings of Dürer and Caspar David Friedrich. It’s Marlene Dietrich singing “Lili Marleen”. It’s a teenage Boris Becker, somersaulting over the net at Wimbledon. It’s marzipan and beer and sausages and sauerkraut, punctuality and efficiency and lederhosen and schadenfreude, and every other stereotype. It’s ’Allo ’Allo! and Fawlty Towers. It’s: “Don’t mention the war.”
But, for me, it has always been about the war. The Holocaust shaped my life. I was brought up to view Germany as a bad place, its produce and people forever sullied by the Nazis. My parents wouldn’t buy a German car or fridge, and elderly Germans we encountered on holiday were regarded with suspicion and contempt. I still cannot bring myself to try on a Hugo Boss suit.
And yet, I am a quarter German, and German blood has flowed through my family’s veins for centuries. Almost 100 years ago, my grandfather Siegfried Baruch (later Sidney Brook) – Saba to me – was born in Krefeld, near Cologne. Family legend has it that the Baruchs first arrived in Germany in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Saba once told me that a school family-tree project, designed by the Nazis to show how impure the Jews were, had instead proved – to the authorities’ horror – that he was more German than anybody else.
Saba was the son of a butcher, the descendant of a long line of butchers and cattle traders (one of the few jobs permitted to Jews in the past). He was a talented athlete and a good student, who planned to go to university to become a lawyer. Those ambitions, as well as his German nationality, were snatched away from him when Hitler came to power in 1933. Six years later, just a few weeks before the war broke out, he found himself aged 18, alone, on a train to London. His mother, Hedwig, died soon afterwards, it is said of a broken heart. At least she was spared the horrors of what was to come. Red Cross records would later show that in 1941, her husband, my great-grandfather Eduard Baruch, was deported to the Riga Ghetto in Latvia, where he was shot into a pit, along with 25,000 other Jews.
My grandmother, Thilde Nussbaum – Safta – also a German-Jewish escapee, met Saba at a refugee centre in Camden Town. Saba joined the Home Guard (as an alien, he wasn’t allowed to fight) and was stationed at Ilkley. After the war, my grandparents settled in Leeds. They didn’t speak German, even to each other, although they retained thick accents. My grandmother never talked about what happened to her family, but I was given the middle name Rachel after her five-year-old niece, who had been gassed in Auschwitz, together with her parents.
Until 2016, I had no idea that, under Article 116 of the country’s constitution, I was entitled to reclaim the German citizenship that was taken from my grandparents. But then Brexit happened and because I have a French partner, a half-French daughter, and a strong desire to remain an EU citizen with free movement, I started to think about Germany. At first, its offer of a passport, which I learned about on Facebook, seemed like poetic justice; the country that had taken so much from my family giving something back. But the more I learned about modern Germany, its openness and tolerance, the more warmth I felt towards it.
When I hand over the strip of photos required for my new German passport to the embassy official, I feel like a character in an espionage thriller, creating a fake identity. As a novelist, I am used to inventing people, and Frau Hilary Freeman is just like one of them. I look around me and wonder if everyone can tell I’m Jewish. This is the paranoia of inherited consciousness.
Saba died in 1998 and Safta in January 2016. They probably wouldn’t have approved of my decision, but I’m sure they’d have understood it and accepted it. They were nothing if not pragmatists, aware of how easily the world can change, and of how important it is to secure the future for your family. Ich bin ein Cologner. Ich bin Deutsche.