Migrations Austria Is Offering Citizenship to Descendants of Jews Exiled During Nazi Occupation. Is That Enough?
This right to return offered to Jews makes me think about who is entitled to join Europe and who is not.
In Vienna, to the west of the Danube, a short walk from Salztorbrücke is a flat that once belonged to my great-grandparents. I observe Vorlaufstrasse 3, on Google Street View. The building’s flamboyant baroque facade and the SPAR grocery housed within are slightly pixelated on the screen. This address, faded marriage and birth certificates, and two black-and-white photographs are the artifacts I used to build a case to the Austrian government: I have the right to be ein Österreicher.
Yet Austria is a country I know only by association. In the Bavarian alps, one long hot summer, we stayed in a cabin just above the treeline. The sky was vast, cornflower blue. It was silent, besides the sound of bells tinkling on the cows who walked from our German side of the mountain, over the meadow, into Austria. I have visited Vienna briefly too: Just out of university, I took a bus journey to Athens with my partner. We stopped to admire the vaulted coffeehouses and eat Wiener schnitzel, then stayed overnight in a mansion flat that looked like Vorlaufstrasse 3.
Now, after a lifetime of Englishness living in North East London, I also hold Austrian citizenship. To formalize my nationality, I’ve spent the last month waiting for a passport, which allows me to move seamlessly beyond the restrictions imposed by Brexit—and to stay, indefinitely, in any country belonging to the European Union. Claiming this right feels like a line in the sand, denoting the start of something new.
I’ve claimed dual citizenship, yet I now exist in a hinterland, neither England nor Austria, somewhere less specific. I am English; I love this stupid little country and its green grass, its lumpy hills, the ice-cold sea, and the rain crashing onto chalky cliffs. I was born in North London and so were my parents. On my father’s side, my grandparents hail from London’s East End; so does my maternal grandmother. It is only my maternal grandfather, Paul Klempner, who was born in Austria.
Paul left Vienna for South Africa in 1936. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany had rattled him, giving him the sense that “there was no future for a Jew in Austria.” Though he had always described his emigration as an economic choice, his motivations were plainly about opportunities—wherever he had them. One afternoon at the cinema, Paul was bedazzled by an advert that promised young men work and fortune down the mines in Johannesburg. His father, Julius, the wealthy proprietor of a tie factory, thought he was mad to leave. Julius and Paul did not get along. To assert his independence, Paul left anyway.
Two years later, in 1938, Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany and Julius was imprisoned in Dachau—a male internment camp on the borders of Munich—on Kristallnacht. It was a night that Julius’s youngest son, Hans, described, in a testimony for the USC Shoah Foundation (then known as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation), as one he can “never forget.” Earlier that day, Hans and Julius had been working quietly in their men’s clothing shop when a rock flew through the air with the velocity of a bullet, shattering the front windows. They left as two Nazi officers chanted “judensau!” meaning Jew pig .
It was close to two in the morning when the Gestapo knocked on the Klempners’ front door in Vienna and took Julius away. The steady pace of normal life ceased; there was no shop, no work. With Julius in prison, Hans; his mother, Paula; and his older sister, Hedi; traipsed frantically from one Jewish organization to another trying to track him down. According to Hans and his testimony, they eventually found Julius in Dachau; Hedi—who Hans described as “looking aryan”—befriended a Nazi officer who soon organized Julius’s release.
Hans met Julius at the train station. “I hardly recognized him,” Hans said. He bundled him into a taxi where he began to cry: “They beat me, they beat me.” That night, Hans caught a glimpse of his father hunched over in this bathtub, a ladder of scars snaking down his spine. A few months later, Hans and Hedi left for England on domestic permits and, from there, Hans organized his parents’ escape from Vienna. In London, Hans found work as a translator for Bloomsbury House, and he helped Jewish refugees settle in England. He recalls the kindness of a Mrs. Edna who arranged his parents’ exit visas to the United Kingdom through a friend in parliament. Julius joined Hans at Bloomsbury, while Paula made a meager living making artificial flowers.
In 1940, Hans took the opportunity to head to the United States. He settled in Chicago, where his parents joined him seven years later. American life was an adjustment. Julius and Paula had escaped Austria just a few days before the border closed, leaving a large extended family behind. Paula’s siblings and mother went to Shanghai, but many of Julius’s siblings and their children were killed. My mother believes the grief was unbearable. Julius died in 1955.
Paul, on the other hand, chose not to join his brother Hans in the US, and he remained in South Africa until the war had passed. He came to England in 1947, where he married an English Jew, had three children, and lived the rest of his life in West Hampstead. He died in 1997, four years after I was born to his youngest daughter, Julia, who was named after his father, Julius.
Growing up, I knew very little about the Klempners. My mother’s silence was stark. Some stories were repeated again and again, but details remained hidden. For this essay, I have had to fill in some of the blanks by watching archival footage and by questioning my relatives, whose memories do not always agree. Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage what happened to the family because their experience was not singular: Their story is one among many, part of a shared history between thousands of European Jews just like us. To endure persecution and forced migration is also, unfortunately, universal—the oldest of human stories. Perhaps this is why I have always sought to understand my family’s.
In 2019, Austria extended citizenship to the descendants of victims of Nazi persecution . This amendment to the Austrian Nationality Act casts citizenship as a form of reparations for Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws, which seized Jewish people’s property and assets before forcing them to emigrate. In December 2020, I submitted my application for Austrian citizenship.
Six months before, in July 2020, I visited Dachau. Although I would have been happier lounging by the Eisbach in central Munich, drinking espresso and eating pretzels, I felt compelled to see the internment camp. In its current form, Dachau is used to remind the world that humans have the capacity to do terrible things. During my master’s degree, a university lecturer said that the genocidal ambitions of the Nazi party were unprecedented because they managed to engineer the “industrialization of death.” Dachau demonstrates this effectively by keeping the machinery of the operation intact. It is a dank and disgusting place. Visitors walk around dingy little rooms, through the crematorium, and then out into the open, where memorials have been built to pay penance to thousands upon thousands of victims. I am reminded of my GCSE ethics teacher, who attempted to explain the Holocaust, then faltered: “The world just went completely mad.”
In the 1996 recording made for the USC Shoah Foundation, Paul’s brother Hans—by then known as Jack Klempner— talks in detail about his family’s years in Vienna. Hans’s testimony for the Foundation is the most comprehensive record my family has of this time. In the video, he speaks with an Austrian American accent and appears pragmatic about the way his life changed after he was forced to leave Austria.
“I would never have left Vienna if that wouldn’t have happened,” he says, referring to Hitler’s rise to power, the subsequent invasion of Austria, and the Holocaust. “But I wouldn’t have what I have now—children and a family—if that would never have happened.” He describes his boyhood in Austria, living a social life with a family who enjoyed parties, theater, opera, ice hockey, and skiing in the alps. According to him, it was “a good life.”
The life of Jews in Vienna in the lead-up to the war is portrayed in uncanny likeness by Tom Stoppard’s 2020 play, Leopoldstadt . Watching it, I felt that there was something unsettling in this attempt to witness a history that is unseen. Jewish life in continental Europe feels remote from how we are living now, particularly to me, when my family has smoothly assimilated to English culture. I can’t help but feel in some way disingenuous when I look to a disturbing past from the distorted vantage of a peaceful life.
I can’t help but feel in some way disingenuous when I look to a disturbing past from the distorted vantage of a peaceful life.
Similar emotions arise when I think of this Austrian passport— my Austrian passport. In one way, it dregs up the unfamiliar life of a grandparent who I did not know and my superficial connection to his culture, through my mother’s penchant for frankfurters and trześniewski. In another way, my passport could be sym bolic of a future, as a pan-European, whose identity is not defined by the worst chapter of Jewish history. But mostly, gaining citizenship is a practical decision that allows me and my French-German partner—w ho lives in London with his ambiguously termed “pre-settled status”—the freedom of movement within the EU.
In the winter of 201 9 , I made my partner a promise. I was walking along Charing Cross Road, fighting my way against the crowds. At the time, he was living in Paris close to his French grandmother but was bound to join me in London. Bookshops and cafés glowed in the darkness as livid clouds swirled past, promising a blizzard. It’s a harsh city. I’ve often told him that we don’t have to stay in England if it’s too difficult.
Since then, he has reminded me, “Sometimes, I feel so trapped on this island. I don’t want to be stuck here forever.”
When I arrived at the Austrian embassy in South Kensington to submit my passport photos, it was both too cold and too wet—even by British standards. In the small queue outside the building, there was a father-and-daughter duo, whose skiing trip had been delayed by the belated discovery of her expired passport, and a Jewish university student who was also waiting to apply for an Austrian passport. I probed him on what he hoped to gain from dual nationality. Shrugging, he said, “Options.”
Post-Brexit, many British Jews, much like me, have applied for European passports. Under laws introduced by the governments of Spain, Portugal, Germany, and Austria, Jewish people are entitled to “reinstate” citizenship if they can prove they are the descendants of those who were persecuted under the Third Reich (Austria and Germany) or the Spanish Inquisition some five hundred years ago (Portugal and Spain). (That means, for what it’s worth, I am also entitled to Spanish citizenship through my paternal grandfather.) Some Jews are claiming passports from countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, where citizenship is based on jus sanguinis—literally “right of blood”—meaning the descendents of Czech or Polish people are automatically entitled to a passport.
The Jewish Chronicle reports that German applications for citizenship have “doubled” since 2016, the year of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. According to Insider , approximately 7,320 British Jews have applied for German citizenship since 2016. Since September 2020, when Austria’s amended law to open up citizenship for a new generation of descendants came into effect, the Austrian government has received seventeen thousand applications—of which three thousand were from British Jews— according to the Financial Times . But as Madeleine Dunnigan asks in her essay for 3:AM Magazine : What does it actually mean to become German?
Citizenship is a way for nation-states to define their borders, delinating who is “in” and who is “out” of the nation. The academic Dimitry Kochenov writes , “Citizenship sits deep in the collective imagination. It is a core building block of our social reality, as it simultaneously promotes complacency and exclusion.” It does this by ensuring a “divisive nationalism” through a “passport apartheid,” bestowing legal form to those with rights and those without. It is a form of political existence, giving citizens access to voting in a democracy and enshrining a mutually (and ostensibly) beneficial agreement between state and citizens through the tax system.
On the other hand, those who are considered noncitizens, left outside of such a legal framework, are at risk of exploitation. The justification for Jews to claim legal status in countries we might never even visit is that the descendants of people who were forced to flee have been denied a birthright to a nationality—and national identity—that should have been passed down.
I wanted to find a common thread between us passport applicants. Or, possibly, to affirm my suspicion that it had more to do with legal rights than a seemingly vague historical justice. I reached out to the Jewish Historical Society , who put me in touch with Judith Gordan, a woman who lives in the North of England with her family. I spoke to her on the phone as she prepared to go to Austria for the first time with her new Austrian passport.
Gordan said that her application was originally rooted in a desire to defy Brexit. But, mostly, she completed the applications for her and her six grandchildren so that they would have the option to live and work in more than one country. After the process, she found, quite quickly, that the passport did start to feel like something that was rightfully her own, a form of justice letting her “reclaim what was stolen from our parents.”
Simon Albert, a lawyer in London, is working on a project with the Jewish Historical Society to collect data to decode the meaning behind this surge in reinstated EU passports for British Jews. Since the project is ongoing and data is still being collected, he can only make educated guesses about the applicants’ motives. So far, Albert can see that Jewish people in Britain are simply doing what many English people with Irish grandparents are also doing by applying for an EU passport under laws that allow descendents to claim a right to citizenship. However, he also says that some Jewish families might believe that “the more passports, the better.”
I’m familiar with the trope: At any moment, the world could easily turn against you, and you might be hunted down, somewhere quite familiar to you.
“That people are going up their family trees, to reinstate the citizenship of countries which expelled their families on pain of death, seems profoundly odd to me,” Albert told me over the phone. “Why would anyone in their right minds want to reinstate those kinds of citizenships? But they are. And some with heavy hearts, especially when it comes to Austria and Germany. Some were a lot more pragmatic. It’s not like they’re going to go to visit and live in those countries, or speak their languages or anything. It’s just to preserve legal rights [in the EU].”
At any moment, the world could easily turn against you, and you might be hunted down, somewhere quite familiar to you.
Albert is now Czech after he spent years examining his family archives to prove to the Czech immigration authorities he had a right to citizenship through his Czech-born grandparents. He predicts that most British Jews do not plan to use these passports to emigrate and leave their lives in the UK, that the passports are instead tokens that memorialize the loss of nations when Jews were displaced during the war. A passport, then, is not a material form of reparations, since it does not compensate for loss of wealth or property. It is symbolic. On behalf of the Austrian government, the offer of citizenship seems to say, We are no longer xenophobic. Jews are welcome in our country. It allows the passport holder, Albert says, to “think a bit more about their family history and their personal status,” which is a form of memorializing our ancestors’ lives before exile.
At university, I read academics like W. James Booth, Eva Hoffman, and Lea David, who wrote about the task of commemoration. Memories, they say, are tempestuous little things, congealing over time, recreating history in their wake. What is terrifying about this process is that the past might be lost altogether if we do not make some conscious effort to remember.
Hoffman writes about the necessity of public acts of commemoration. She says that memories should not be locked in the home where “fragmentary phrases” burst out incoherently. For example, my mother recalls a trip to Vienna with her parents and siblings where they stood outside the Klempners’ flat and witnessed Paul’s incoherent rage at the Klempners’ difficult history. A half-formed picture leaves splintered “shards” littered across the domestic landscape. Without a common narrative of the past, the present is made illegible. Whereas a more comprehensive memorializing could puzzle the fractured elements of the past into one coherent piece, giving form to the senselessness of violence. Acts of remembrance are then essential for victims and perpetrators to reconcile, which is why Booth sees memory as “the face of justice itself.”
Memorialization has been a defining part of modern German life. Besides all of the larger memorial sites like the Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas in Berlin, there are also seventy-five thousand Stolpersteine all over the country—literally a “stumbling stone” and metaphorically a “stumbling block”; gold plaques pressed into the cobblestones outside former Jewish residences—that are used to remind Germans that a Jewish family was forced to leave this home behind.
In comparison, memorialization in Austria has been less ambitious. The country saw itself as the “first victims” of the Nazis, but the amended citizenship laws do signal a change in public thought. In the Guardian , Hannah Lessing, secretary-general of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, says the passport is a “gesture” that “can never truly make amends for the Holocaust” —although this is, in part, why she lobbied for it. This passport is then useless, I believe, beyond acting as an apology for my grandfather’s lost national identity. The fissures that erupted in conflict cannot be filled through symbolism alone.
While it may be important for the second and third generation—and all the generations to come—to pay tribute to the suffering of our parents and grandparents, this identification with the past should not define us, when it risks trapping us in a binary of victim and perpetrator. The narratives we tell should, instead, act as cautionary tales compelling society to move forward by addressing current manifestations of xenophobia in Europe and beyond. In the same Guardian article, Nik Pollinger reports that Bini Guttmann, the Austrian president of the European Union of Jewish Students, “urged people to look beyond such gestures to the country’s current political climate,” where racist politicians inspire hatred using immigrants as scapegoats. In her recent essay about Holocaust memorialization for The Atlantic , Mattie Kahn writes that she is one of Generation “Never Forget” and yet, she does not probe how this “never forgetting” might prove useful beyond tackling anti-Semitism.
I can’t help but think the same about my Austrian passport. What does it mean to be granted a passport so easily when so many people are denied them? This right to return offered to Jews makes me think about who is entitled to join Europe and who is not—specifically, the thousands of refugees who have drowned in between one Mediterranean shore and another because of discriminatory European migration laws . Now that Jews have been absorbed into the white majority , we are no longer a threat to European identity. Whereas Black and brown people from poor countries in the Global South are considered a threat to national or economic stability. In the good-immigrant-versus-bad-immigrant dichotomy, “real refugees” are women and children whereas single young men with dark skin are “opportunistic.” The reality is far more complex. People choose to leave their country because of poverty, climate change, war, and instability. They are looking for a better life. The EU’s migration laws are hostile to this nuance.
What does it mean to be granted a passport so easily when so many people are denied them?
When I received my Austrian passport, I received a short welcome letter. In it, the mayor of Vienna encouraged me to vote in the 2022 Austrian national elections. My aunt, a rabbi living on England’s southeast coast, said that it is our responsibility as Jews to use our vote to combat fascism in Europe.
In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria is on the rise. In Germany, the fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-Islam Alternative for Deutschland Party (AfD) has eighty-three seats in parliament. In April, centrist French president Emmanuel Macron won reelection by just a fraction against his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, who has normalized far-right discourse in France , dividing the nation against immigrants and French Muslims.
Fascism is not a threat only to Jews. In Europe today, racism is more likely to be pointed toward Muslims or racialized immigrants. Simon Albert points out that many of the countries that are hostile to Black and brown immigrants, like Hungary and Poland , have taken on thousands of Ukrainian refugees, who are mostly ethnically white. But, thinking of the drowned , it’s clear to me that a more concrete symbol of reparations—and one more in line with the Jewish values of human dignity and social justice—would be offering migrants safe passage to Europe, if they seek it.
To me, acquiring Austrian nationality is a political gesture and nothing more. I received my little burgundy passport in May 2022. At first, I hid it from view. As if I had a vile secret. But soon, I felt exhilarated at the sight of it. At any moment in the day, I found myself fantasizing a romantic cliché—emerging from the Metro de Barcelona to the sun-drenched city. However I choose to live my life, if I stay in London or not, what I know is that nationality is not definitive. Even so, without it, people are rendered powerless. Which is why those with the means to vote have the capacity to make such enormous change. Like this, I have chosen not to be a passive observer nor let my grandfather’s history define my future.
On the grounds of Dachau, there are various monuments to the dead. Helmut Striffler’s Church of Reconciliation is built beneath the surface of the earth, surrounded by a concrete wall that protrudes toward the sky. From below, it feels vast, like a cliff’s sheer edge. Only a shred of light passes between the walls, bathing the courtyard in its weak glow. Inside, the effect is even more striking. With just one slit in the wall, the light forms a sharp end pointed at the concrete altar.
As visitors, my partner and I had the option to write our thoughts on a piece of paper that would be added to a collection of prayers stashed inside a wooden box. Seeing my partner sitting on a chair, his face half in shadow, I thought of both of our grandfathers: one, a Jewish immigrant unable to return to Austria; the other, a German Nazi. In that moment, I felt wonder that, despite the monstrous history that had taken shape before us, together, we could create something that felt like home.