The Dead Admonish
Thank you for this. One of my favorite things about your writing is your willingness to explain publicly how your personal life and history inform your political beliefs. Too many writers are coy about it, or perhaps aren't clear or honest enough thinkers to write about it in such a straightforward manner.
Thanks for sharing this, man. Like everyone else, I also found it really moving. It resonated with me because I recently went through kind of a similar experience. On a trip with my dad recently, he explained to me that my grandmother's extended family was exterminated when the Nazis took Rostov-on-Don in 1942. My grandmother, who was a medical administrator for the Soviet railroad, whose husband was killed in the Nazi advance on Ukraine, and who was in Moscow when the Nazis were advancing on it and helped coordinate medical care for people coming to and from the front, was able to save her mother after the Nazis had to give up Rostov-on-Don, and have her moved to Kazakhstan. Everyone else ended up "in the ditch," as my father put it. When I got home, I found an article in an journal of Holocaust studies about what had happened there, but I found it kind of hard to connect, the numbers were just too overwhelming; though learning that this was before the camps, in the "machine guns and gas vans" phase of things was very queasy. My grandmother, who I knew as a really kind and gentle and overall very happy person considering all that she'd lived through, never really talked about any of this stuff, and I had this weird feeling that, because she'd been lifted out of shtetl life by the Soviet Union, our whole branch of the family had been "pulled into the groove of history" (a phrase from Ellison's Invisible Man I think about a lot) where as these people had been, well, tossed into its ditch, and that there was no bridging the gulf.
Some time ago, when I was travelling to Germany a lot more for academic stuff, I was kind of toying with the idea of applying for Latvian citzenship, so I could work and travel freely. I was born in Riga, and my family left as Jewish refugees to America. This was kind of a non-starter from the beginning, since I would have had to pass a test in Latvian, which I don't speak and is incredibly hard to learn, but my father was vehemently against it, since he felt like Latvian nationalism dovetailed in a really big way with any anti-Semitism, with everyone dismissing tales of concentration camps as "Soviet propganda." (Of course, this is the history Putin is exploiting now.) The whole experience, that sense of not really belonging anywhere, or being from a place that no longer existed, really kind of impacted the way I think about American identity politics, which tends to sentimentalize the oppressed in a way that doesn't really work, to say the least, in the Soviet sphere. But it did make me feel, like you expressed here, that the project of European integration, is a worthy one.
Anyway, congratulations, and thanks for sharing all this. Just wanted to add my voice to express how much it moved me.
I have long enjoyed your writing, but this piece is particularly good. I sometimes feel that we live in an era that produces huge volumes of vacuous political rhetoric trying to hit the same emotional buttons over and over. It is good to be reminded that serious political writing can be moving and inspiring in a far more profound way. Thanks.
Thanks for this, and congratulations on getting the citizenship! My grandfather also had to leave Germany because of his Jewish background (at age 11) and about nine years ago my grandfather and dad managed to get citizenship for themselves and their descendants, through a long and annoying process. I am about to move to Germany indefinitely myself, not really because of the citizenship but just for professional reasons, and it's interesting to read about your misgivings, which to some extent I share. I'm sure you've heard of this and have probably read it but on the off chance you haven't I'd highly recommend Peter Weiss's Aesthetics of Resistance. There are tons of details and names and it's possible you might find some people your cousin was in contact with.
This is well written and emotional. I enjoyed how you described your feelings about Europe, I understand you well, I’m European from African origin, Italian citizen and I feel so proud of my citizenship that it’s difficult to explain to Italians. I have one nationality now. You were originally German and you deserve to get that nationality because it’s about your history. You deserve to own this, so that your children could continue to tell of your cousin story.
Thank you for sharing your and Gottfried’s story. It is very moving.
As to the relevance to the New World, I would argue that America has not done enough to erase the legal legacy of the Confederacy. True, all laws and bonds of the CSA were declared nullities, but the true cure was embodied in the 13th-15th amendments and Reconstruction, both projects that are at best unfinished. So perhaps we can learn something from Germany here.
Thank you for this excellent piece. My great-grandfather's sister also died in Auschwitz, and was also little-remembered by the family that came to the US. I feel a similar ambivalence about the prospect of applying for Austrian citizenship, for the same reasons you express. My grandfather certainly never wanted to go back, buy like you the EU project speaks to me deeply.
"Die Toten mahnen uns" is also the inscription in a memorial in the cemetery many socialists, including Luxembourg and Liebknecht, are buried in Berlin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zentralfriedhof_Friedrichsfelde
If something like this can wonderful, then it is, thank you
Beautiful - so sincere
A remarkable family story, recounted so well.
To the memory of Gottfried. And yes a thousand time over to the almost criminally taken-for-granted miracle of the EU project, despite the warts.
This piece has stuck with me years after reading it. It was the first time I heard about citizenship restoration. Thanks for sharing your story.
I really enjoyed reading that, thank you!
great essay, John. Thanks.
That’s a beautiful piece of insight. As a Jew with some tragedies in my bloodline as well, I often wonder how to hold this knowledge, how much is honor and how much is revanchism (or something in that general grievance minded way). This is another way to look at it, just to be considered.
Thanks for sharing, John. Congratulations.