In search of Austrian nationality seized by the Nazis

A young student in the United States has embarked on the reconstruction of the life of her Jewish grandmother based on her painful history with the Nazis.

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Very rarely do they speak German, some have not even set foot on Austrian territory, but they have accepted the hand extended to them by the country from which their ancestors had to flee and recovered a nationality stolen by the Nazis.

“For me, it was crucial,” says Maya, a 17-year-old American. Although she has spent her entire life in Maryland, this student wanted to piece together the painful history of her Jewish great-grandmother.

Testimonies of these new citizens of the Republic of Austria, who have benefited from a change in the law that offers, since September 1, a passport to the descendants of the victims of the Holocaust.

There are several reasons, from affective reasons to the duty to safeguard the memory or a desire to do justice, which led the Americans Maya and Noah, the Israeli Gal, the Argentine Tomás and the British Robert to claim that right and regain the nationality that it was taken from their ancestors.

Forced exile

Their stories begin with the crumbs that have reached them. The forced exile of Stella Rinde Coburn, of whom Maya Hofstetter is a descendant, came in August 1939, after Adolf Hitler annexed his native country to the Third Reich on March 12, 1938.

The grandfather of Israeli Gal Gershon left Austria a year earlier. “It was not his decision,” recalls Gershon, 46-year-old director of sales for air carrier El Al.

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“When he was 13 years old, his parents put him on a boat, by himself,” on his way to an orphanage in Palestine. For a long time he had no news of his family, until he learned that his relatives died in the fields.

Before the annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, the Alpine country had 200,000 citizens of Jewish origin. Of these, more than 65,000 were killed during the Shoah. To survive, the vast majority had to flee, sometimes to Shanghai or Buenos Aires.

The father of Tomás Diego Haas managed to embark for Argentina by bribing a diplomat, says this 60-year-old South American, who exercises a very Viennese profession: psychoanalyst.

As for the young Noah Rohrlich, 25 years old and resident of Washington, his grandfather left the country at the age of 16, before the war broke out. He began studying at Harvard in 1946, four years after his parents died in a concentration camp.

“Know where we come from”

“We always asked him what it was like to live in Vienna, but we never got a very detailed answer,” laments this short-haired, black-haired American, showing his great-grandparents Egon and Cilly’s passport in Gothic characters, stamped with an imposing red “J” ( from “Jew”).

Few are the refugees who told in what conditions they had to leave. It was necessary to clean the slate, leave Austria behind and rebuild a lifetime elsewhere.

For their descendants, obtaining nationality is very often a way of re-establishing ties with their ancestors and with the country of origin.

“Now, being an Austrian citizen gives me the feeling of being closer to my grandfather,” says Noah, who chose the same teacher as him: an engineer.

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Gal mentions “a very strong emotion”. “It was a way to close the story, to correct it in honor of my grandfather,” he explains.

At her age, Maya might have other concerns but “the past affects the present,” she says. “You have to know where you come from to hope you can become someone good.”

His mother, Jennifer Alexander, a social science researcher for the US government, also cites political motives. “My grandparents would have been upset to see the United States of the last four years,” he says.

For his part, the British Robert GW Anderson declares himself “delighted” to be able to reconnect with his Austrian roots, and comments that Brexit also prompted him to regain Austrian nationality, as the UK’s divorce from the European Union “shocked” him. .

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