I’m an American-born Jewish woman. Why did I apply for German citizenship?

by Samantha Barnett / March 6, 2023

Samantha, at age five or six, dressed up at her Oma and Opa's Saturday after Thanksgiving party.

Samantha, age five or six, dressed up at her Oma and Opa’s Saturday-after-Thanksgiving party.

During a recent conversation with a friend, when they asked what was new, I said, “I got my German citizenship.” After making this remark, a funny feeling came up in my stomach. Something felt strange, like…I got this thing, but did I truly deserve or earn it?

It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I am six years old. Our family is getting ready for the third and final night of celebration and gathering for the holiday weekend. I slip on my party dress, and we head off to the party room in my Oma and Opa’s (my Mom’s parents’) apartment building. There are four generations of families who have come together to celebrate the holiday season and catch up on the past year.

As I grew up with this annual tradition, I learned more about its history. This was not just any gathering of my family. It went beyond that; it was a special gathering of German Jewish families that had all fled Germany prior to, during, or after World War II. They called themselves The Crowd. Many of the older generations had been impacted by or directly experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. To little six-year-old me, this was just a fun family tradition filled with so much life and laughter with our family-by-choice from around Kansas City. To my grandparents, this party represented their life that they rebuilt after the war, with people who would support and love them through the hard and wonderful times alike.

Samantha's mother, her three uncles, and her Oma.

Samantha’s mother, her three uncles, and her Oma.

My Oma was a Holocaust survivor from Germany. She lost many of her friends and family members in the Holocaust, including her parents, who were killed in the concentration camps. My Opa and his family escaped Germany just as Hitler took power, coming to the United States. Growing up, my cousins and I were always told that we could ask Oma and Opa about before the war and after the war but never about their lives during. That topic was off-limits. 

Samantha, her mother, and her father dressed up in preparation for her mother's Bat Mitzvah.

Samantha, her mother, and her father dressed up in preparation for her mother’s Bat Mitzvah.

A few years ago, when my cousin first approached me about applying for German citizenship, I had those same butterflies in my stomach. German law grants former German citizens and the descendants of people whose citizenship was revoked due to political, racial, or religious reasons between January 30th, 1933, and May 8th, 1945, to be naturalized upon application. I was very unsure what this would mean to my identity and to my mother. My mother is the daughter of my Opa and Oma. Like many second-generation Holocaust survivors, she still feels – consciously or unconsciously – the ripple effects of the tragedy and trauma of the Holocaust. When I first told my mom, she wept. She asked me: Why would I consider getting citizenship to a country that killed many of our ancestors and destroyed their communities?

However, I felt quite differently. I saw gaining German citizenship as a way to regain power in a situation where we had once lost it. I saw it as additional freedom to move to another country if desired or needed. Lastly, I recognized that if I ever needed to flee from the United States due to the growth of antisemitism, I would have the ability to do so. I began the process, first with many conversations with my family, and then completing the written application. Most of my cousins on my mom’s side of the family have also applied.

I am a person that has closely hung onto my Jewish identity. Over the years, I have given earnest thought about what it means to me to be Jewish. That meaning has changed depending on where I am in my life. For instance, when I was in undergraduate school, I took a deep dive into Jewish traditions and practices. I became an active member of the Jewish Life on campus and minored in Religion. I lived in the Jewish Life House and became president of the school’s Hillel chapter. After undergrad, I started to find my own Jewish practice and started attending Shabbat services regularly.

Samantha, her Opa, and her mother enjoying the spring weather at Loose Park in Kansas City.

Samantha, her Opa, and her mother enjoying the spring weather at Loose Park in Kansas City.

 Today, my Jewish identity has shifted once again as I received my German citizenship. This acquisition has caused me to pause and take time to process what this means to me. Candidly, writing this blog has forced me to do that. I am constantly wrestling with the fact that I have never traveled to Germany. I know little about their culture and don’t speak or understand the language. I am filled with great uncertainty when I think about with whom I want to share this new development in my life. I fear people’s judgment, their ridicule, or having to explain why I applied in the first place. As I move forward, I see this now as a chance to continue to learn and as a chance to take ownership of a part of my identity that was stolen simply based on my family’s religious beliefs.

Samantha, age five or six, and her Oma.

Samantha, age five or six, and her Oma.

While I cannot change my family’s past, I can take steps to help mend some of the broken pieces. For me, seeking and gaining my German citizenship starts to mend what has been shattered in the past. Germany has created the opportunity to correct their wrongs. While it might not be perfect or restore those who lost their lives, it’s a major step Germany is willing to take. 

Over time, I am sure that my new American-German-Jewish identity will shift. Maybe it will feel less weird. All I can ask of those around me is to be kind and patient as I learn how to navigate this new aspect of my identity. I will be grateful for a long time to come that I was even given the opportunity to seek out the rights that were once stolen from my family.

I’m that little six-year-old girl again at the Saturday-after-Thanksgiving party. The faces I am surrounded by are laughing and exuding joy. We all sit down for dinner, and my Oma and Opa stand up to give a brief welcome speech. They start to read off a brief list of happy life events that have taken place over the past year. While their remarks are simple, they hang in the air. A reminder of just how far everyone has come. A reminder to look forward to the new year and all the good that is yet to come.

Samantha hiking in the Great Sand Dunes National Park In CO.

Who is the author?

Born and raised in Kansas City, Samantha moved to Norton, MA to attend Wheaton College, where she earn her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology. After university, she moved to Boston for a few years to work for a prominent art gallery. In 2020, Samantha moved to Washington, DC to earn her Master’s of Arts in Teaching with a focus in Museum Education. Today, she is a preschool teacher in the DC area and enjoys hiking, baking, and spending time with her DMV family and friends.

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