A few years ago, I turned down an offer of an Austrian passport. At the time, I couldn’t imagine “becoming” an Austrian citizen. It was yet another “reparation” many years after eviscerating my family from Europe in the most successful genocide in human history; there have been many since.
So far as I know there is no one from my family left in Europe. Whoever survived, and their descendants, are either in the United States, or Canada, or Australia in a unredeemable diaspora. Not only are we scattered, we may not know of one another’s existence or, if we do, we live so far away that we have had very little contact over the years. Perhaps a visit or two, some letters, a phone call, and more recently, zoom gatherings. Few and far between, all of it.
What good would it do, I thought, to become Austrian at this late stage of life? What hasn’t been repaired, will never be repaired. End of story. That was my thinking and emotion state at the time the offer arrived a few years ago. Not to mention that I don’t speak German and always resisted speaking German, though I understand a great deal. My parents spoke German to each other, but never to their children so like other children of immigrants and refugees, the language, our parents’ mother tongue, is in our linguistic ear, though we are, in a sense, deaf to it. But this language has surfaced in me recently and I am, once again, studying German aided by a lot of streamed German series (Tanzschule Berlin is sensational). I hardly have to look at the subtitles. This morning, I woke with the word dunkel in my head, though had no idea how to spell it. Now I do.
So what is going on exactly? Why this unexpected longing for a lost culture, a lost continent, a lost language? Why the regret for not accepting the offer of Austrian citizenship, which also would have meant EU citizenship? Maybe it has something to do with what is going on in America right now: the rise of the fascistic right wing. White supremacists in the upstate New York town where I live have marched down Main Street, posted screeds on lamp-posts with Nazi insignia, and sent them via Fax to the Town Hall.
At the writing center at a two-year community college where I had been hired pre-Covid as a professional tutor to help students with their essays and other assignments, a deranged student stood in front of me, pointed, and called me a Jew. I could not escape his accusation, there was no safe defensible space; as a part-timer I had missed the lock-down drill. My mind flashed to a storage closet just steps away, but I was sitting, and this big, strong young man was standing, blocking the aisle. He rushed away and then turned back. Now he was standing in front of me again, jabbering nonsensically, and staring at me intently. I should have done a lot of things in that moment, but I was paralyzed. I’m a Jew, I thought, how does he know I am a Jew? I look Semitic, but I could be Iranian, I could be a Cree from Saskatchewan, I could be Greek. Where did he pick up his racist ideas? His racist impulse? What radio programs or internet sites had he been ingesting without understanding their meaning and import? Has he heard about synagogue shootings, seen the images on television? Does it make a difference that I am a secular Jew? That some of my European family are, in fact, Catholic? Is he going to hurt me?
I had just finished reading Eli Saslow’s book, “Rising Out of Hatred,” about the infiltration of mainstream political culture by the white supremacist movement. But the student who had called me a Jew was African American, so I was puzzled. Had he experienced so much racism and brutality himself that his scrambled mind now turned it on others? Maybe it wasn’t music playing on his headset but a racist screed urging him on? Maybe he imagined himself to be white, or didn’t know who he was, or where he was. What might he have hidden in his backpack?
My colleagues were watching, but didn’t seem as alarmed as I was. Neither of them is Jewish, so how could they understand the iconic terror that had been unleashed in me? How could they understand that I still feel my parents’ and grandparents’ terror the day that Hitler marched into Vienna and my grandmother, Nanette, was forced onto her knees to scrub stones? She had been at work that day and was on her way home. How did the German soldiers know she was Jewish? She wasn’t religious, did not wear a wig. How did they know?My father often said that we mustn’t bring more Jewish children into the world only to be killed. He argued for assimilation, for secularism in the American diaspora. I was relieved to marry a man from Polish/Russian/Jewish ancestry who does not “look” Jewish, who would not be singled out and could—and this was probably an unconscious thought—protect me. And I was relieved when my daughter did not inherit my Semitic nose and then married a British man, an Anglo Saxon, and changed her name, all of these also unspoken thoughts. In fact, I am the only one in my immediate family to carry Middle-Eastern and/or North African genes on my face. Although I experienced anti-Semitism when I lived in England for the first time in my life, I had always felt safe in America, until I wasn’t. And now the outlandish thought that I might feel safer in Berlin.
I was not sure if it was a tragedy or a comedy, that Austria offered me “the right of return,” an offer that arrived ein bissel späte. That’s German for “a little late.”
I wonder what my murdered relatives might say if they knew I was considering a return to their once-loved nation? Or that I dream of the alps where they skied, the coffee houses where they read the daily newspaper and met their friends, the opera, the university, the art galleries and concert halls.
So many were killed. How could a return to Europe heal this wound?