“They said my late father would turn in his grave,” Robert tells us seriously in the BBC1 documentary titled British Jews, German Passports.
As the son of two Jews who fled Germany to escape the Holocaust, and as the descendant of many relatives who did not escape, Robert is entitled to German citizenship through a little-known and little-used article in the German constitution. But now he’s actually considering it, his family is very disturbed by the idea. It seems an insult to his ancestors.
Why apply now? Brexit, of course.
Robert Voss visits a rabbi at the Cattlehouse Museum in Germany
Since the referendum vote on 23rd June, thousands of Brits have scrambled to apply for dual nationality, making sure to keep one foot in Europe by securing their EU citizenship. Some have suddenly discovered Irish roots; others have made their claim to Dutch or French or Spanish nationality.
But for the British Jewish community, the question hangs heavy with history.
Applications under Article 116 paragraph 2 of the Grundgesetz have swelled from a tiny 20 per year to more than 800 since the Brexit vote. And sure, modern Germany is a very different place from the country of yellow “Jude” stars and Kristallnacht and extermination camps. These days Germany accepts desperate refugees from across the world, and has one of the strongest democracies in Europe. It takes pains to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, and its young people are not responsible for the crimes of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
But for some, like Kindertransport survivor Harry, the idea of wanting to rejoin a country which tried to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the Earth is mind-boggling. He cannot understand it. It is a betrayal.
Kindertransport survivor Harry debating with Baroness Julia Neuberger
This documentary follows three British Jews confronting that dilemma: Robert Voss (a businessman), Hilary Freeman (an agony aunt at the Jewish Chronicle) and Baroness Julia Neuberger (a peer in the House of Lords).
Documentaries where people go on a “journey” to “find their identity” can often be tiresome. But this 35-minute film is much more than that because Robert and Hilary are finally asking the questions about their families that have needled at them for years and are grappling with a very thorny emotional dilemma.
Robert’s problem is that he can’t argue with the dead. If he wants validation from his father, who lost his own parents in the Holocaust and never wanted to speak about the atrocities, he can’t get it because Mr Voss is six feet under. He may or may not be rolling in his grave, but the decision must rest with Robert.
Instead, Robert decides to dig deeper and find out the details he was never told: what really happened to the Voss family?
Robert Voss explores the archives
It turns out there’s a difference between knowing in theory that family members died in the Holocaust, and knowing the specifics. Soon we are tracing his grandparents across the historical records, watching them move from their home to a crowded slum and then to a train carriage. That journey took them to Sobibor and to their immediate death. And what about his dad’s angelic little cousin Karla, who is smiling happily in a surviving photograph? There’s her name in the passenger transport list too, and there’s the building where she probably spent the last night of her life.
This is too much for Robert: he can see how much Germany has moved on, but the scars of the Holocaust are too much to overcome.
Hilary is on a different journey. For her this started as a pragmatic way of keeping her European citizenship, but it has turned into a much more emotional experience than expected. She talks to her mum about her anti-German upbringing (her parents ruled out ever having German cars. Why? For the gut-wrenching reason that German car companies made gas for the concentration camps). But in Germany she finds a new generation keen to make amends.
There is no conclusion to the uneasy question of whether applying for German citizenship is the right thing to do: each must decide for themselves. But British Jews, German Passports gives an insight into the questions unexpectedly facing this country’s Jewish community 72 years after Hitler’s death.
British Jews, German Passports airs at 10.45pm on Tuesday 2nd May on BBC1