There are some things you don’t ever expect to hear. Listening to a representative from Austria openly apologise for the treatment meted out to my ancestors was one of those times.
Michael Zimmermann, the Austrian ambassador to the UK, was addressing new recipients of Austrian citizenship at a ceremony I attended a few weeks ago. I think everyone there was surprised but impressed by his candour about the dark times of the 1930s and ’40s. “This was one of the darkest chapters of Austrian history and today’s ceremony is also meant as an apology to your ancestors, your family,” Mr Zimmermann said.
He added: “Let me emphasise that this project is another step of reconciliation, of atonement, remembering people who were mistreated in Austria, who were forced out of Austria by a murderous regime, with the active collaboration of their fellow Austrians.”
This was far removed from the Austria I grew up hearing about – the country that saw itself as the first “victim” of Nazism after the Anschluss (annexation) in 1938, and which later elected as its president Kurt Waldheim, who had lied about his war service. Austria has taken a long time to come to terms with its culpability. But it appears to be doing so, just as other countries, such as Poland, are trying to distance themselves from past events.
In 2019, former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz proposed an amendment to the nationality act. It meant victims of the Nazi regime and their descendants could apply for citizenship once this amendment became law. That occurred in September 2020.
My father, Henry, was born in Vienna in 1937. His father, Berthold (for whom my son Robert is named), and mother, Margarethe, ran two cinemas, but after the Anschluss, my grandfather was arrested for refusing to show Nazi propaganda films. He was sent to Dachau and then Buchenwald. My grandmother, together with her baby son, was thrown out of their flat.
Berthold was released from Buchenwald after 14 months owing to a political amnesty. Because my grandmother had managed to procure a visa to the UK and they could pay the hefty exit tax, the Ebner family escaped. They arrived in the UK two weeks before the start of the Second World War, leaving behind many relations, almost all of whom were murdered.
My father was not overly fond of the land of his birth. Post-war, he, and so many others, felt let down again by Austria, which seemed to wallow in victim status, while Germany attempted to make reparations. Henry was very proud to be British, although he loved Strauss waltzes and Sachertorte and had a print of the Viennese opera house hanging up in his study.
Would our family have been interested in Austrian citizenship without Brexit? I doubt it. But the timing of the change in Austrian law and the UK leaving the EU has meant a huge number of applications, with more than 1,700 new UK/Austrian citizens so far.
I was not particularly interested in applying for myself, but felt my children might benefit. At the time, my daughter was studying German A-level: a European passport seemed as if it might be useful. My father, a lawyer by profession, started the process, bringing together all the documentation. He surprised me by saying he was going to apply for citizenship himself: it was as if things had come full circle, he told me, that this was a kind of restitution.
My father died before our citizenship came through but, now, because of him, we Ebners have Austrian citizenship and passports. I felt strangely melancholy when they arrived – was this our “reward” for the pain my family went through? – and I’ve since been asked why I would want to become Austrian at all.
At the beginning the answer was simple, to get that EU passport for my children. Yet, after the reception at the embassy I felt, as Ambassador Zimmermann said, I was getting back something that was rightfully ours.
I’m Jewish. I’m British. I’m Austrian.