For years I had on my bookshelf a picture of my father in British army uniform. It sat beside one of his father — my grandfather — taken two decades earlier, in German uniform heading off to fight the British.
Yet as a child I was never conscious of a German heritage. Friends asked why my father had a funny accent, but I never heard it — he was simply Daddy. It’s true he did speak German, mostly with his sister and his mother, but never outside the family. He was British, and when old school friends from Berlin tried to make contact with him years after the war he refused to have anything to do with them. Germany was a country, and even a subject, never to visit.
It had been the German chancellor’s appointment in 1933 that had finally shattered his family’s faith in Germany, so it was inconceivable that one day I would correspond with the German chancellor with warmth and admiration, let alone become a German citizen.
Immediately after Hitler was appointed my grandmother Annie Rosenbluth, who was then a 42-year-old Berlin goldsmith and artist, sent her teenage son, Hans — my father — to buy train tickets to London. She locked up the family’s summer house outside the city, returned to her home near the Tiergarten and quietly packed what could be carried, then closed up the apartment. Together with Hans and her daughter, Dina, she left her country, never to return.
Annie knew England. She and her children had stayed in London before when her husband, Felix, had been posted there. Felix was a close friend of David Ben-Gurion and had been sent to persuade the British and the League of Nations of the need for a Jewish safe haven. Now he had finally fulfilled his dream and moved to Palestine, but Annie had no interest in Zionism and the idea of becoming a pioneering settler in the Middle East was just too much for her. So they agreed to separate, at least for a while, he establishing a law firm in Tel Aviv, while she found a place in north London and dispatched Hans and Dina to the local school. Determined to assimilate, she changed her name to Ross and settled down to finding ways to make ends meet.
She turned her artistry to making toys and, much later, one of her proudest achievements was that her firm, Fancycraft Ltd, was selected to display the best of British at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Meanwhile, Dina became a child psychotherapist at the prestigious Tavistock Clinic and Hans graduated from LSE and got engaged to a girl he had met at school.
Their blossoming relationship was interrupted by the outbreak of war. Hans’s German background put him, and the authorities, in a difficult predicament. It also plunged him into a scandal, the so-called Dunera affair, long forgotten, but at the time a national embarrassment that would give rise to books and a movie. At the outbreak of hostilities all Germans and Austrians living in Britain became enemy aliens. Initially only known Nazi sympathisers were interned, but in May 1940, with imminent risk of a German invasion, even so-called friendly aliens were rounded up — including the 55,000 Jews who had fled from Nazi persecution.
One evening, or so the story goes, Hans was told by the local London bobby to pack his things and head to Euston station. Because he was about to take his fiancée to the cinema Hans protested. Could he not leave it until tomorrow? The officer, who had seen the film Hans was going to and recommended it, acquiesced. So the next day Hans presented himself at a police station and was sent by rail to Liverpool, from where, it was assumed, he would be put on a boat for the Isle of Man.
On arrival in Liverpool, though, he was loaded on to a troopship called the Dunera — and even before it set sail it became clear that this was not to be a simple ferry ride. It was later called a floating concentration camp. The crew were surly and violent; 2,000 refugees were crammed in with 450 Nazi prisoners and were locked below decks. There were few bunks and ten toilets, and the crew plainly believed that all of them were spies. Their valuables were looted and their documents and baggage thrown into the sea. Worse still, instead of making a short crossing to the Isle of Man they went south, heading for the Atlantic.
Now there was added danger. Some of the internees had only just been rescued from a sister transport, the SS Arandora Star, which had been torpedoed by a U-boat the week before with the loss of almost 900 lives. On their second day on the Dunera two loud bangs caused panic as torpedoes hit, but failed to explode.
After 57 days locked in the holds the refugees finally emerged to daylight. They had arrived in Sydney — frightened, dishevelled and undernourished — only to find that the Australians also regarded them as hostiles. They were transported to a remote camp at Hay, 400km north of Melbourne, where they were hemmed in by barbed wire and marooned for ten months.
Hans was surprisingly forgiving. He believed in British fair play and always insisted that the Dunera was an aberration. At any rate, on finally getting home he promptly enlisted, changed his name from Hans Karl Rosenbluth to John Caryl Ross and joined a unit jokingly referred to as “The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens” — the British Army’s Pioneer Corp.
These were soldiers not yet trusted to serve in frontline units — who were stretcher-bearers or constructed airfields, bridges and temporary harbours — although for many fighting would come later. Hans was eventually sent to Malaya, returning two years later with the rank of captain and, not without irony, as the shipboard commander of a large cohort of prisoners of war.
None of this was ever discussed at home. We never learnt what my father had experienced as a teenager in Berlin as brownshirts patrolled the streets, or about the cruelties he endured on the Dunera. Nor did we discuss the idea of being Jewish. My mother was quintessentially English, and her grandfather was a bishop. We had little sense of Jewish heritage; there were no Friday nights, no Passovers, no synagogues; we sang Christian hymns at school.
We did, though, often see my grandfather Felix, who by now was an Israeli elder statesman. He had signed Israel’s declaration of independence, had led the Liberal Party there for many years and was deeply opposed to the anti-British militants of the Stern Gang and the anti-Arab nationalists such as Menachem Begin. (He would be as appalled at Benjamin Netanyahu’s bellicosity in Israel today as he would be at Jeremy Corbyn’s oblivion to antisemitism in Britain.) He had remarried, but his new wife died of cancer and their daughter of leukaemia, so my sister, Judith, my brother, Jerry, and I were his only grandchildren. He came to London every year or two to see us, and once I went to visit him in Israel.
Yet still my father wouldn’t visit Germany. Finally, in the 1980s, after former classmates entreated him to come for a reunion, my mother persuaded him to go. I think he was uncertain, even nervous, but the visit was a huge success and was followed by several more.
In 1990 my father died, and, since the Berlin Wall was gone I resolved to go back to learn something of his past. My sister had compiled a family biography, based in part on a great aunt’s childhood memories. So, armed with these intimate recollections, I hunted for a metal bridge over a canal at Finow, not far from the town of Eberswalde. In the 1920s there had been an inn on one side of the bridge — and there it was! Or at any rate, the crumbling remains, with its faded name just visible in the brickwork. Beyond it was Messingwerk, and the house my grandfather grew up in.
It was a dismal place. The Russians had ransacked the village and plundered the big brass works that was the main source of people’s livelihoods. They had constructed an ugly barracks and the whole place looked forlorn. As for my father’s childhood home in Berlin, there was nothing left. The area had been destroyed by bombing.
Even so, ten years later I decided to visit again and persuaded my wife and sons to go with me. This time something remarkable happened. As we were staring at my grandfather’s home, now smartened up in a village that looked decidedly prosperous, a local man asked us what we were doing.
“My husband’s father was born here,” said my wife in her O-level German: I don’t think she could recall the word for grandfather.
“Warten Sie bittekurz, ja?” we were commanded. Wait here. He scurried off to make a phone call and eventually a younger man swung up on a bicycle. He seemed keen to shake hands. What was my name? Nick, I answered, Nicholas Ross. So, he said, you are the brother of Judith and Jeremy?
It turned out that Arnold Kuchenbecker, the man on the bike, was the local historian. Like thousands of people of his age throughout Germany he had struggled to come to terms with how his relatives could have embraced the ferocious narrative of Nazism. Arnold gave me a copy of a book, EberswalderGedenkbuch, that he and his colleagues had compiled, that commemorated all the Jews who lived in the region and the terrible things that had happened there.
He knew all my family’s names by heart, and even that our distant relatives had all escaped. He took us to see a First World War memorial and pointed out how my great uncle Max, who died fighting for the Germans, had been left off the plaque because the Nazis had expunged the names of Jews. He showed us the new street signs, many bearing Jewish names or honouring those who defied the Nazis. I wished my father and grandmother could have seen them.
That is when I first thought I might seek to reclaim my past. The postwar German Basic Law provides for Jews and others who were forced or frightened into exile and deprived of German citizenship to have it restored. The rules are generous to descendants. I could have German citizenship without losing my British citizenship, as could my children if they chose, and so through the generations.
Somehow I didn’t get round to it. I’m British, so why should I want a German passport too? Perhaps the referendum in 2016 might have tipped the scales — for me it was a shabby political device and its outcome will impoverish our nation — and the vote for Brexit seems to be why so many others have applied for German nationality. Yet as it happens my change of heart predated that, albeit by only a few weeks.
I had visited Berlin frequently as a journalist, and when I was there two years ago I looked in on Eberswalde and Messingwerk again. On my return I downloaded the nationalisation application forms (all helpfully in English), gathered the back-up evidence, made a date at the German embassy to be interviewed and . . . a few weeks later my certificate came through. A simple green diploma, but freighted with poignancy for me. Next, on my birthday: a German passport.
I know there are some descendants of Nazi victims who can never forgive what happened in Germany’s darkest times, but I also know that virulent antisemitism was rife in many other countries too. I know the Germans perfected industrial mass murder, but throughout recorded history humankind has indulged in terrible bouts of slaughter, torture and wiping out whole populations. Yet I know of no other country whose people have faced up to their terrible deeds as have the vast majority of Germans. The moment I had that passport in my hand I knew I had to write to Angela Merkel to say so.
Of course she would never read it. “Nor should you,” I wrote, “given your commitments. But I hope one of your staff will give you at least a one-line precis from a British broadcaster who has just received his German passport.” I briefly explained how my father’s family had fled, how when I returned to Finow I had been treated like a long-lost son, and how I had resolved to embrace Germany just as those strangers in Germany had embraced me.
“And now I have a German passport. It is, perhaps, the ultimate proof of the failure and rejection of National Socialism, and of Germany’s astonishing moral renaissance . . . I treasure it and, as one small voice, want you to know how much I and my own family appreciate the way in which Germany has confronted its past — and how you personally epitomise its finest values.”
There was a surprising postscript. A few days later I had a call from Steffen Seibert, a former broadcast journalist like me who is now one of Mrs Merkel’s top advisers and heads her press and information agency. I am sorry to phone, he said. Your letter specifically asked that staff shouldn’t bother to reply, but the chancellor has read your letter and has asked me to ring and thank you.
Steffen speaks English fluently. I was embarrassed that I speak not a word of German.
© Nick Ross 2018