British Jews take German path to Europe after Brexit

Published 26.01.2019 15:38

Two of British opera singer Simon Wallfisch's great-grandparents were shot in mass graves by the Nazis and another died in a concentration camp. So it was with pangs of guilt and triumphant defiance that Wallfisch took on German citizenship once his country decided to leave the European Union after 46 years.

"I've had to use a major family tragedy to shore up some security for my future and my family's future," Wallfisch, who is also a cellist, told AFP while taking a break from a protest performance of the European anthem outside the British parliament ahead of a historic vote on Brexit.

About 70,000 Jews fled Nazi-occupied Europe to Britain in the harrowing years preceding World War II. A rising tide of their children and grandchildren are now overcoming misgivings and using a clause of the German constitution to restore the citizenship stripped from them by the Third Reich. Official Berlin figures show only 43 Britons applying for German passports in 2015 under the special exception for victims of the Holocaust and their descendants. That number jumped to 684 when Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. It grew again to 1,667 last year and reached 1,229 in the first nine months of 2018 as more and more people sought ways to preserve their EU right to work and travel freely across the bloc's 27 states.

Their decisions reflect the anguish many Britons feel at their island nation's isolationist turn. "On the one hand, I feel like I'm sort of a traitor to my great-grandparents," Wallfisch said after a moment's reflection. "On the other, I feel there's a triumph here. Me becoming German and remaining a European citizen, which I always believed I was, is a victory over the nationalists, the Nazis."

Britain's planned March 29 departure from the European project was decided in a bitterly fought referendum that gave voice to the disaffected and those feeling abandoned by the ruling elite. It also fed into social schisms that saw the number of anti-Semitic incidents and other hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales rise from 52,465 in 2014-15 to 80,393 in 2016-17.

Yet some taking the plunge and adopting a dual German nationality come from non-religious families that slowly shed their Jewish identities as they assimilated in the mostly Christian kingdom.

Some British Jews have had a harder time looking past history. House of Lords peer Julia Neuberger, a Jewish community leader who is also a London synagogue rabbi, wrote in The Times that her mother "would neither visit Germany nor buy German things" after coming to England in 1937. Yet Neuberger felt comfortable enough to try to reclaim her heritage when Brexit was voted through.

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