It is one thing to be researching the past for a work of fiction, it is quite another thing to be searching it for one's own past. I sent my family name out into cyberspace, not sure what was going to come back. Not much did, to begin with. I found a reference to my father's business. I found a list of the books my mother had translated from German to English. Nothing significant.
I emailed the German Embassy to suggest that I was probably not going to be able to apply for restored citizenship after all as I was not in possession of the correct documentation. Privately I decided to give up. The Embassy's reply, when it came, was unexpected and heartening:
''Dear Ms Hedges,
if you are not in possession of the documents you can nevertheless apply according to Art. 116 and submit all documents or copies of documents you find. The application process is free of charge.
I resumed the search. And then someone on Facebook suggested I try Yad Vashem - the organisation that has painstakingly listed the names and last known details of every Jewish person who perished during the Holocaust. So I found their site online. I typed in the names of my paternal grandparents. I pressed send. And unbelievably, there they were on the database. Alma and Raphaele.
Their names were on pages of testimony from survivors, on a deportation list from Berlin, on a list of murdered Jews from Germany. The map accompanying their entries gave their final destination as Katowice, in Poland. The location of Auschwitz concentration camp. Under the heading: Fate, one word: murdered.
When I got over the shock of what I was looking at, I tried to recreate what I'd been told about them. It was so pitifully little. They were affluent members of their community. They were highly educated; they had read Goethe and Schiller. They had a maid called Kate who spoiled my father and his brother with sweets and cake.
I also knew that, despite the huge privations they were beginning to suffer, Alma made up a food parcel every fortnight to send to my father in England. Like all Jewish refugees, he was interned here for the duration of the war, meaning that he was forbidden to work and was dependent upon charity and meagre handouts from the state.
I thought about their final days together as the net closed upon the remaining Jewish population in Berlin. How two intellectual and cultured individuals were marched out of their comfortable family home, pushed into an over-crowded cattle truck, denied food and water and then, when they reached their destination, brutally separated from each other and summarily gassed, because the government of that time had decreed they weren't human beings any more.
And when I had stopped weeping, I thought about all the words we use to describe those other people, the ones that are not us: migrant, foreigner, immigrant, refugee. Jew, Arab, Muslim. Words that we think give us permission to hate. And I felt great sadness that nothing much has been learned.
So my journey to discover myself reaches its final stages. At the end of this month, I shall make an appointment with the German Embassy to present my documents. I hope that what I have discovered is enough to convince them to restore my family's citizenship and ensure that my descendants will forever be members of the European family to which they have a right to belong.
I will let you know their decision in due course.
I heard back from the lovely UK German Embassy last night (23rd November)
I hope this email finds you well.
I have today received an email from the Federal Office of Administration stating that the processing of your application is just about to be completed!
However they need certified copies of the following documents:
- your marriage certificate
- your parents’ marriage certificate
We are making progress! The first document is not a problem. The second will involve some searching through the UK General Register Office. I have initiated the search.