My dad’s elderly brown passport is still in good condition. “German EmpireIt stands on the front, next to a swastika-bearing eagle. Inside, there is a large red letter J, while the word “Israel” is inserted between my father’s first name, Heinz, and surname, Ebner. This is, to be clear, the passport of a Jew.
It was used when Heinz (later Henry), two years old, left Vienna in 1939. He and his parents, Berthold and Margarethe, broke out in the UK two weeks before the war and settled in the Norfolk countryside. Berthold spent 14 terrible months in two Nazi camps, Buchenwald and Dachau, for refusing to show propaganda films at the movie theaters owned by the family. Most of the relationships they left behind were killed.
Last week I received a brand new European passport. It’s burgundy – unlike the new British – and carries the word “passport”, Together with the Austrian eagle. I now have that highly valued right, European citizenship – and mixed feelings about it. Is this my reward for my father who had to flee from his birthplace?
In September 2019, the Austrian parliament approved an amendment to the Nationality Act. Those eligible – people who were persecuted under the Nazi regime and their immediate descendants – could apply for citizenship as soon as it came into force, 1 September 2020.
I never thought about becoming Austria, until Brexit. My father, then in his 80s, was eager to help, especially so that his grandchildren could obtain EU citizenship.
It is not surprising that our family’s experience is not unique. Of the 17,000 who applied for Austrian citizenship by September 2021 through the amendment, 3,000 were British. According to the Association of Jewish Refugees, this is the joint highest number, next to that of Israel.
The amendment appears to reflect a change in attitudes. For decades, Austrian society was dominated by the sense that, rather than welcoming the Germans to the Anschluss (annexation) in 1938, Austria was the first “victim” of Nazism. While Germany openly acknowledged and apologized for its centrality in what happened, Austria was reluctant to admit any guilt.
The small – but growing – Jewish community has been pushing for change for years. The existing law, as Benjamin Nägele, general secretary of the Jewish community of Vienna, says, “had many shortcomings”, including the right to citizenship limited to descendants of male survivors. It was Sebastian Kurz, then chancellor (he resigned after allegations of corruption), who made the difference, speaking of reconciliation and forgiveness. He’s just 35, and part of a new generation. “Kurz strongly urged this,” said Ruvi Ziegler, an associate professor of international refugee law at the University of Reading. “He is young and grew up in a different time.”
Nägele points out that the coalition government’s amendment was adopted unanimously, which reflects “a change of attitude within political society”. He adds: “It’s an injustice that was finally rectified, a historic decision and an emotional one. This new generation was willing and able to ask and answer difficult questions. ”
This attitude is also illustrated by last year’s launch of a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, in November 2021, a public memorial with the names of the more than 64,440 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust can be seen in Vienna.
Ziegler is intrigued that Austria’s political shift does not resonate elsewhere. “There is a degree to which Austria is very much in tune with its past,” he explains, “but it is happening at the same time as Poland is doing the opposite and concluding any suggestion of involvement in the Nazi era. It is specific to Austria, not a general trend. ”
My father and his parents had the opportunity to return to Vienna after the war, but chose not to. My grandparents felt it would be better for my father to grow up in Britain: I hope they will be proud to see their three Jewish grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
My father died in October 2020, before regaining his Austrian citizenship, but he told me it was as if things had reached a circle. “It’s a kind of restitution,” he explained. I think that means we have to accept our new European passports as our right, and all that they can offer us.