Donna Swarthout
Featured Post

I’m Jewish, American and happy to live in Berlin

To those who warn me about the rise of European nationalism: My family has never experienced anti-Semitism in Germany

I get a little edgy when my Jewish friends in the States send me articles about the rise of anti-Semitism and right-wing nationalist groups in Germany and Europe. “Have you seen this!!??” they always ask, sometimes in all CAPS. I’m glad they can’t see the slight eye roll I make when opening these email salvos. I know they are wondering why I’m still living in the land my parents and grandparents were lucky to escape from. “Sure,” I tell myself, “Germany’s got problems, but you aren’t expecting me to pick up and rush back to what passes for a democratic society in America these days, are you?”

There’s no point arguing with friends back in the States about whether there are more racists and anti-Semites in the U.S. or Germany or elsewhere in Europe. Instead, I let them know that my family has never experienced anti-Semitism in Germany. I point out that the anti-populist Green party is currently Germany’s second most popular political party, and that counter demonstrators vastly outnumber the far-right Alternative for Germany’s supporters at most demonstrations. I tell them that the media has a profound tendency to overlook the normalized aspects of Jewish life in Germany — the religious gatherings, festivals, concerts, and rituals that routinely take place here.

I live in Germany as a dual citizen, not an expat or an immigrant. I reclaimed my German citizenship in 2011 under a law that allows those who had their citizenship stripped away by the Nazis, and their descendants, to have it restored. By reclaiming my citizenship I claim membership as a German national, but I still claim my place as an American. I’m a transnational citizen, with loyalties and values grounded in two countries and the European Union.

I’m glad I was born an American, but I’m a lot better off living in Europe. I’m proof of the claims made by Thomas Geoghegan in his book Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life. Nearly ten years after it was published, Geoghegan’s insights about European social democracy are still valid. Take the issue of child support. The German government provides my family with 588 euros a month to support the cost of raising our three kids. We have free access to higher education and excellent workplace benefits, like twenty-five vacation days a year. As citizens and residents we are automatically registered to vote and we do our voting on the weekends. When I go to the doctor there are no co-payments or insurance forms to fill out.

My ninth grader recently came home and told me that the students in his history class had to choose whether they primarily identified as a Berliner, a German, or a member of the European Union. He said that he most strongly identified as a Berliner. I understand his connection to the city where his school friends and soccer buddies live, but I hope he’ll feel differently when he’s older. I told him that membership in the European Union gives me a sense of belonging to a broader community with liberal values that can help us overcome the dangers of extreme nationalism. He went off to Fussball training without giving much of a response, but there’s still time for my words to resonate with him.

I teach a class called Jewish in Germany to American university students in Berlin. I open the class with an article titled “I’m a European Jew – and No, I’m not Leaving” by the intellectual historian Diana Pinto. I want my students to understand that the Jews in Europe don’t just flee oppressors, that they make positive choices about where they want to live, choices based on their values and lifestyle preferences. American Jews and Israelis seem to have a stake in, and Pinto argues they have built their identity on, arguments for why the Jews should leave Europe. Underlying these arguments is a persistent narrative about the Jews as victims who can only find a safe haven in the U.S. or Israel.

It’s time to broaden the narrative about the Jewish experience, to recognize that Jewish life is flourishing in Germany despite its dark and tragic past. There are many benefits to getting a European passport for those who are eligible, whether you decide to move here or not. My family made the choice to reclaim our citizenship and return to Germany. That was eight years ago and it still feels like home for now.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout has been writing about Jewish life in Germany and the legacy of the Holocaust since moving from the U.S. to Berlin in 2010. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (Berlinica 2019).
Related Topics
Related Posts