Judith Wolff had never considered trying to obtain German citizenship until after the Brexit vote.
Photograph: Lee Brown for the Guardian
Descendants of the tens of thousands of German Jews who fled the Nazis and found refuge in Britain are making use of their legal right to become German citizens following the Brexit vote.
German authorities have reported a twentyfold increase in the number of restored citizenship applications - a right reserved for anybody who was persecuted on political, racial or religious grounds during the Nazi dictatorship, as well as their descendants.
About 400 applications from the UK are being processed by the authorities and 100 further inquiries that will “very probably” lead to applications are in the pipeline, it is understood. The usual annual figure is about 25.
Michael Newman, the chairman of the Association of Jewish Refugees, said that his organisation had fielded hundreds of inquiries. But he added that the process of applying for citizenship of a country that treated their ancestors so badly was a “considerable psychological challenge” for many.
“It is somewhat ironic that we [the association] were founded partly to help people become naturalised British after the war and, 70 years on, we find ourselves in the position of assisting people who want to acquire German and Austrian citizenship because of the recent developments in Britain,” said Newman, who has submitted his own application.
His grandmother arrived at Southampton docks from Cologne aged 27, the day before the second world war broke out, and her mother was murdered at the Che?mno extermination camp in 1942.
“Many of us are finding things out we didn’t know or being forced to take a closer look at our pasts. It’s appalling for some, a revelation for others,” he said.
For many people, the shock of the Brexit vote on 23 June was enough to sweep away generations of hostility. Oliver Marshall, 58, a historian of international migration, called his sister and her three children on 24 June, alerting them to the fact that they were eligible for German passports.
His grandparents, who were German-Jewish apple wine producers from near Frankfurt, eventually settled in the UK after fleeing to the US in 1941.
“Brexit is closing doors and getting a German passport is opening doors for us,” he said. “It’s part of my Jewishness, I think, to want to keep things open, as you never quite know what might happen.”
His grandmother, Klara Rosenberg, lost many close members of her family in the Holocaust. “She hated Germans all her life,” Marshall said. “She wouldn’t have understood why we’re doing this.”
But his mother, Liselotte, who is 93 and obtained British citizenship in 1953, has welcomed her son’s response. “I asked her about it and she just raised her eyebrows and said: ‘The wheels of history’.She was, after all, close to doing it herself over the Iraq war when she was furious with Tony Blair.”
Marshall’s nephew, Sam Bowers, a 28-year-old tropical ecologist at Edinburgh University, said the German citizenship he received at the country’s embassy in London on 14 September was his post-Brexit insurance policy. He hopes it will enable him to work and carry out research in his specialised field elsewhere in Europe.
“There’s a lot of concern in my academic field as to where our funding will come from in future, as a lot of it is EU money,” Bowers said. “And for me to be able to compete for jobs in Europe without the disadvantage of a non-EU passport is hugely important.”
Bowers admitted that he had little attachment to his German-Jewish heritage. “Maybe that will grow in time,” he said. “After all, I’ve only been German for about a month.”
The decision would have been harder had he needed to renounce his British citizenship, hesaid. “I don’t particularly like what is happening in the UK right now, so to take back the German citizenship stolen from my family is, in a small way, to be able to reject what’s going on.”
The move to become German put some people in touch with a troubled past they had known little about.
Judith Wolff, 45, a student nurse from Bromley, south-east London, said the paper trail had made her feel closer to her roots. “And although I don’t speak German, I could imagine going to live in Germany,” she said.
Wolff’s father, Franz, escaped from Berlin in 1939 when he was 18 and got a job at the Hotel Russell in London. But as soon as war broke out, he and about 80,000 refugees from Germany and Austria were classed as enemy aliens.
Franz Wolff was given the choice to be interned for the duration of the war on the Isle of Man or join the British army. He chose the latter and ended up in intelligence. After the war, he entered the civil service and became a customs officer at Berwick-upon-Tweed.
After the war he discovered that his aunt and uncle had died in Auschwitz. “I don’t really know how that affected my dad as he never talked about it. Now, of course, I wish I’d asked him more.”
Franz Wolff died in 2001. Judith Wolff is now submitting her application for German citizenship. “I was shocked by the [referendum] result,” she said. “I have lived and worked in France and suddenly I saw doors to Europe closing to me. bI realised that becoming German would prevent that from happening and contacted the German consulate in Leeds. They were very helpful and told me the documents I needed to provide.”
Wolff was helped in her search for birth and marriage certificates by the descendants of a Hamburg family who had been patrons to Franz Wolff’s father, Gustav Heinrich Wolff, an artist whose work was classifiedas degenerate by the Nazis. “All of this has made me feel closer to my German-Jewish roots,” she said.
Under article 116, paragraph 2 of Germany’s basic law, any descendants of those people persecuted by the Nazis are eligible for German citizenship.
The German foreign ministry told the Guardian: “Since 24 June, our embassy in London has experienced a significant increase in inquiries and applications in relation to citizenship applications on the basis of article 116.”
It is not a choice everybody is prepared to make. Harry Heber, 85, who was born in Innsbruck, Austria, but came to Britain on the Harwich ferry at the age of seven in December 1938, was appalled at the suggestion that he might apply for the restoration of his Austrian passport.
Under Austrian law, only survivors are eligible, not their descendants.
“I think people who are doing that need their brains examined,” said Heber, who has vivid memories of German troops marching into Austria when it was annexed to Germany in March 1938. “The proposition of seeking sanctuary in the very place that murdered my relatives absolutely appals me, and not least because for the last 78 years, my loyalties have been to Britain.”