citizenship article

The repressions worsen

Of course, Hermann was also planning an escape for his family and business assets, but he was doing it deliberately. He had been squirreling money away in his export business, skirting the laws governing financial transfers. Hermann knew that his every move was watched by the Gestapo. 

Family and home life was disrupted when it was ruled that Jewish households could no longer employ German maids and servants, though some exemptions were granted to alleviate German unemployment. Among other measures a child might have noticed, Jews were banned at beaches, baths and sports facilities. Yellow notices barring Jews from certain park benches went up first in Prenzlauer Berg, then Wilmersdorf and eventually citywide.

Crackdowns in the city markets effectively ousted Jewish dealers from dealing in eggs, poultry and game, as well as from the municipal stockyards. In the first targets of the coming Aryanization policy, Jewish food traders were forced into liquidation. Under this odious policy, Jewish business owners could be forced to sell their assets at far-below-market value to any Aryan buyer who bid for them. By the end of 1937, more than 30 percent of Jewish businesses and stores in Berlin had been expropriated or liquidated in this way. 

Betty Wohlgemuth stays behind

First we go to Betty Wohlgemuth, saying goodbye to her daughter and granddaughter, who are carrying only two small bags as if leaving on a weekend trip. Knowing they could be watched, they give each other just an ordinary hug and kiss goodbye, not the kind you give to someone you will never see again.

Betty made her own choice to remain behind. She was sixty-three years old and had seen the terrible excesses of the Nazi regime. But she still regarded herself as a German as well as a Jew. She had lived her life in Kolberg, Elbing, Danzig and Berlin. She had seen the best of enlightened Jewish culture. Her concept of herself as both German and Jewish remained unshaken. 

Perhaps she thought the Nazi era was an aberration and would eventually pass. Or perhaps she thought she was too old to run for her life in hopes of starting over in another place. You have to wonder, though, what she was thinking two months later when synagogues were burned and businesses looted in the nationwide pogrom called Kristallnacht.

Our German-Jewish birthright

In another chapter of this book, my sister Joanne describes how she was able to reclaim our mother's stolen German birthright under Article 116 of the German Constitution. She also explains why—alas—my older brother and I were not eligible to do the same thing.

In this chapter, I explore our mother's family roots to discover the historical circumstances that conferred German citizenship on the family to begin with. I look at the history of two family branches—the Ringels and Wohlgemuths—to show how differences in their legal status and cultural outlook resulted from their differing points of origin in Austrian Galicia and German West Prussia. 

As for the parenthetical part of the title, I found I couldn’t leave that out. I’ll show how much good their cherished citizenship did for them after the Nazis took over, which is to say almost none. Our centuries-long family history in Germany and Austria was snuffed out at that time, but family members like our mother who managed to get out in time carried with them some cultural DNA that was passed down to future generations. Today, Joanne’s reclaimed citizenship and that of her daughter Elana affirm our ties to the family’s history in the pre-Nazified German lands. 

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