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What is the process for Jews to obtain German Citizenship and a Passport?

German Consul General Niels Von Redecker and Basya Gartenstein in front of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., where the flag from Ukraine is draped on the side of the building that illustrates Germany's strong, visible support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.

By Basya Gartenstein, Director, Jewish Community Relations Committee

The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee worked with the Weinstein JCC to host the German Consul General, Niels Von Redecker, as part of our expanding partnership.

This May, Mr. Von Redecker partook in a panel – “We Jews Collect Passports” – in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month that honored the layered identity of American Jews. Thanks to JCRC’s advocacy with Mayor Levar Stoney and the leadership of Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, Jewish JAHM has been established in Richmond and Virginia in perpetuity.

At the special program, “We Jews Collect Passports,” in May at the Weinstein JCC are (from left) Survivor Inge Horowitz, Basya Gartenstein, German Consul General Niels Von Redecker, Rabbi Beth Janus and her daughter, Nami.

The other panel participants included Rabbi Beth Janus, the descendant of a Beth Ahabah family who recently acquired a German passport; her daughter Nami (age 17) who acquired the passport as well; and Survivor Inge Horowitz.

Aside from examining Jewish identity and our present-day relationship to Germany, we explored themes such as whether we can forgive and what the growing Jewish presence in Germany has meant for German society.

Post-panel, attendees asked to learn more about paths to attaining a German passport and the perks of being a German-Jewish EU citizen in 2023. Mr. Von Redecker and I discussed this topic via an interview.

  1. Can you please describe the process for Jews to acquire German citizenship?

The most important thing is to contact the German embassy or your region consulate general.  We have 8 consulate generals in the U.S. and 1 embassy. Virginia is in the region of the German embassy. If you live in Georgia, you would turn to the German consulate general in Atlanta.

We have citizenship officers in all 9 places who are very specialized on these issues. This is the first step. They will be your advisers and consultants to guide you through the procedure.

You can also check on our website (www.Germany.info) where info and the procedures are described in detail. Usually, you will want to establish a personal contact and everything starts from there. Every individual journey is different.

Documents needed include: marriage certificates, birth certificates, and documents proving you were part of the community.

  1. If there are only American documents showing the transition from Germany to the USA, what would be done?

We would start from there, but we can help find documents that are missing in our German archives. Date of birth and death and, date moved are how the process starts. Some people prefer to engage a specialized lawyer, but there is no need for that. We consider ourselves at the German Missions Aboard as an advisor and consultant.

  1. Are there any specific requirements or criteria that Jews must meet to be eligible for German citizenship?

Our constitution states “Former German citizens between 1933-35 who were deprived of their German citizenship for political, racial, or religious grounds may have their citizenship restored.” Nowhere do you find the word Jew. The relevant element is thepersecution for political racial or religious reasons. Racial and religious reasons tend to apply to Jews, but not only to Jews.

We don’t check whether a person is a Jew. We check whether they were persecuted or stripped of their citizenship. People who emigrated during those years were automatically stripped of their citizenship on November 25, 1941.

So, everybody outside of Germany as a German citizen automatically lost their German citizenship if the person who was considered to be Jewish by the Nazi government.

  1. Have you seen other groups outside of the Jewish community take a path to citizenship?

Yes, but 99% of the cases are Jewish in the USA. For example, a person like Thomas Mann, the famous German writer who immigrated to the U.S., was stripped of his citizenship by the Nazis and the reason given was not that he was a Jew – though maybe they called him a Jew to insult him. It was for political reasons. But speaking in quantitate terms, this would be the exception.

  1. Jewish ancestry doesn’t affect the application process rather the criteria mentioned?

Yes, in a positive way. If those ancestors were either Germans or lived in Germany between January 30, 1933, and May 8, 1945, then the Jewish ancestry plays a positive role in the process because the persecution of the Nazis is the decisive factor.

  1. So, Jews who experienced persecution before that Nazi period cannot apply?

Correct. The simple paragraph from our constitution enacted in 1949 has not been changed since it only applies to persons stripped of their citizenship in those 12 years.

  1. Are there any rules that readers should be aware of that are pertinent to periods outside of the Nazi period?

For persons who have German ancestry, we check depending on the situation. Maybe this person is still a German (citizen), and never lost their citizenship.

  1. How long does the application process take?

One to two years – that is the general rule. What we heard from Rabbi Beth Janus was five years. However, that included three years of preparation, but from the moment she submitted, it took two years. The cases are dealt with in chronological order. A simple case  could take one to two years.

The phone call or email is the first step; a big step. For many, they are coming out of their personal private comfort zone and saying ‘I want to reclaim my German citizenship.’ Then you are not alone anymore and the German embassy and authorities try to help on the way. We establish a relationship for every application.

The moment you contact the embassy there is a public element. Many applicants want some publicity to talk about their story. The element of storytelling and sharing is part of that process. Most want a ceremony with some publicity and not just at the counter, which is not very ceremonial.

In the pandemic it was not possible to have ceremonies but  we held small ceremonies and outdoor celebrations. The first in the spring of 2021 was outside in our backyard with food, drinks, and conversation.

  1. In the honoring process – are the ancestors honored too or just the individuals?

We see it as an obligation. With great respect, we ask about the family background stories and if people want to share these stories of their ancestors. In doing so, they honor their lives.

Everyone is eager to share some stories. Often it gets very personal – my mother, my father, my grandmother, and what exactly happened to them. Some people bring the iron cross of their grandparents from the first World War or a photos and share stories at the ceremony. I remember one story of a famous German football player, a Jew from the 1920s, who was one of the grandfathers.

10 . Once citizenship is obtained, are there any requirements to renew after so many years? Can citizenship be lost or revoked?

Citizenship can be lost the moment you take up another citizenship. If an American re-acquires German citizenship, then you have two.  If you acquire a third citizenship you would lose the German citizenship — if you don’t start another process beforehand. Contact the embassy before contacting a third citizenship.

  1. Do Jews who attain citizenship acquire equal rights to a European citizen? What are those rights?

With a German citizenship you automatically acquire EU citizenship and do not have to move to Europe.  You have all the rights as a European citizen.

This includes freedom of movement, settlement and employment, trade, voting, and to run as a candidate in certain elections. They could settle in Portugal with a German passport, but they could vote in the European elections and could vote locally in Portugal and could run as a candidate.

  1. Are there any particular challenges that Jewish applicants face during the process?

It is a very bureaucratic procedure. You need patience and the willingness. People who have reservations toward the country of the perpetrators, which is perfectly understandable wouldn’t approach us anyway. When you finally get your citizenship back it is a success.

We had a case when a person died in middle of the process, and we knew how important it was for that person to finish the process – it was a healing for the whole family. But we cannot posthumously hand out citizenship, so we issued a passport of the hearts – it has no legal value but sent a strong emotional message to the family.

  1. How many Jews have successfully acquired German citizenship in recent years?

Based on 2021 (our latest year for numbers), the numbers on a global scale went up. Going back ten years, globally we issued 2,200 citizenships. For 2021, we are at 6,600, so the number has tripled in the last ten years.

In the U.S., it quadrupled from 600 to 2,000 in this period. In the UK we were at zero ten years ago, and in 2021 – 1,900 were restored. I think that has to do with Brexit.

When you look at Israel, you see 1,200 to 1,600 – not as dramatic. It is hard to draw conclusions.

There was a steep rise is 2021 but it was because the process takes 1-2 years?

During the pandemic – people had time for genealogical research and apply. At the same time, the work load for that office in Colone went up, but the work force went down because of the lockdowns leading to some backlog.

People couldn’t travel to Europe during the pandemic and an EU citizenship changed that for many. We have also seen a rise of antisemitism in the U.S. and other countries and this might also play a role. We hear  it is good to have a second option, a Plan B, another passport.

  1. What effort is the German government making to support and integrate Jews who acquire German citizenship?

From the moment you are handed your certificate that is the moment you are a German citizen and are treated like any other German citizen.

You have the right to settle in Germany. Some do that. We have a growing Jewish community in Germany – the only country in Europe with a growing Jewish population and the third largest population in Europe. We have around 100 Jewish communities. No matter where you decide to settle it is quite possible you will find a Jewish community center there.

We have 118,000 Jewish people organized in Jewish community centers and an equal number not organized with a Jewish background. The Jewish communal centers support those who end up affiliating.

The genocide in Ukraine by the Russian troops is alarming and so we see a historic connection here – both Germany and the US have identified this as a field of particular concern and also the prosecution of war criminals and crimes in Ukraine is something we work on with the US and Ukrainian government. You can trace almost every German policy to responding to the holocaust.

  1. What role do you believe Jews with German citizenship can play in strengthening the relationship between Germany and the Jewish community globally?

The one sentence I always say at repatriations is: “we are here to serve you” but it works the other way around. We consider our community of repatriated Germans to be transatlantic ambassadors for Germany here in the U.S.

We try to keep in touch after repatriation and send invites for events. We had a wonderful party for all those repatriated during the pandemic – 200 persons were at the ambassador’s residence. We keep in touch with this community of ambassadors of the new Germany.

When connected to repatriation, this is the first trip ever for that individual back to the country of the perpetrator and so many things can happen – including positive ones.

Like Rabbi Janus’ experience, she was so surprised by positive encounters. One last element – the same is the other way around. When I traveled through Israel a few years ago, I said I am from Berlin and I only received positive reactions from everyone – Orthodox, left-wing, right-wing. I could only conclude that Berlin has a positive connotation in today’s Israel, and this was not the case 50 years ago.

This is very dynamic. I think all of this contributes to strengthening the relationship between Germany and the Jewish community globally. We at the embassy feel we are representing Germany in a country with a large Jewish population, and this is an existential elementary part of our job here – to represent Germany in this context.

  1. Do you see a trend of Jews applying for German citizenship as a response to rising antisemitism in other countries?

Yes. It is hard to point a finger and nail it down exactly, but you hear it when you talk to people. We don’t ask those questions. In Great Britain, the predominant factor is Brexit. I’ve heard some Jewish people want to do it discreetly and not want publicity.

The willingness to share stories is really remarkable. For some families, it took two generations to be open and willing to retain citizenship. All persons with responsibility until 1945 have died, so it is a different and changed country.

There is a new generation of Germans, and that makes it easier. We see a surge of the age group of 90+ who after so many years say now, ‘I want the citizenship.’ The numbers for the elderly are not going down.

For more on JCRC, reach out to Basya Gartenstein at bgartenstein@jewishrichmond.org.