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Germany: what I’ve learned from living in the country from which my family once fled

Eight decades after Kristallnacht, The Local's editor Rachel Stern looks back on her own family history and the members who became victims of National Socialism, as well as what calling Germany home means to her today.

Germany: what I've learned from living in the country from which my family once fled
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Photo: DPA

I was eight-years-old when I first heard the term Holocaust.

My extended family had gathered together for a reunion, where I happily played games like tag with my cousins outdoors in the California heat.

As the sun started to set and we headed inside, I noticed a map of a large family tree – with branches stretching up to generations who had come before mine. Towards the top of the tree, the same four words appeared next to numerous names, over and over: Victim of the Holocaust.

What does that mean? I would later ask my mom, who explained how her side of the family had squeezed onto one of the last ships crossing the Atlantic during the rise of the Third Reich.

Amid rampant pogroms and discrimination, my great-grandmother had scraped together barely enough cash to cross into New York via Ellis Island, like so many other immigrant families, where they arrived shortly before Kristallnacht, 80 years ago to this day.

When their ship docked at the shore, they didn’t have money left, nor did they know any English. Yet they were safe, and managed to survive.

But the rest of our family who stayed behind had not been so lucky, she further explained, elaborating on their fate with foreign words I also hadn’t heard before, like Auschwitz and Dachau.

Even when she told me the reason why, I could not fully understand why.

With morbid curiosity, I delved into books about World War II as the years went on, still trying to comprehend the level of hate that led to the Holocaust, and the other atrocities of war I would learn about in my classes at school. Horrified, I tried to calm my mind, justifying history as precisely that: a culmination of past tragedies imprinted in a society which has learned from them to become more advanced.

My family, however, held history close, especially older generations who deftly avoiding setting foot in Germany, even on flight-layovers. “Why would you want to learn that ugly language?” my great-uncle told me as I informed him of my newest linguistic pursuit, ironically commenting on the same language he spoke as a child.

Half out of budding curiosity, half as an act of proving that the past cannot rule the present, I visited Germany for the first time in 2008, fascinated to set foot in all of the history of Berlin that surrounded me. Walking around the city on a chilly December day, I read the outdoor placards at the former Nazi headquarters for a long time before I noticed that my hands had become numb.

Back then I envisaged my long-weekend in Berlin to be my only, a pitstop on a pan-European trip to exercise my post-university travel bug before settling back in the States. But increasingly intrigued by Berlin, I came back to live in 2012, working as a journalist in various capacities.

I reported on a lot of stories which showed how much society has, indeed, progressed: be it the Wilkommenskultur following the refugee crisis of 2015 or Israeli-Iranian music compilations. Yet simultaneously I saw the way that hate and discrimination manifested themselves, that past was not its own entity, neatly shelved in file cabinet of ‘Atrocities which could never happen again.’

I reported on right-wing demonstrations throughout Germany, dug-up Stolpersteine, anti-Semitic verbal and physical attacks at schools. At first such instances seemed like fringe outliers, and on one hand they are. Felix Klein, who has been Germany's commissioner on fighting anti-Semitism since May, acknowledged that “our democracy today is stable, strong.  It's completely different from the situation in 1938 or the Weimar Republic”.

Yet on the other hand, there is no denying that the number of incidents is growing, on both sides of the Atlantic. Many American Jews, my own family members included, had read about a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, but assumed violent attacks couldn’t happen in the U.S. That changed when 11 people were gunned down at a Pittsburgh synagogue earlier this month.

“It would be impossible to mark this seminal event in Jewish history without noting the frightening climate of anti-Semitism and xenophobia currently spreading across Europe and the United States,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Living in Germany on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, I see how far society has evolved, as shown by the fact that I can still safely and freely live here. There are so many open and honest memorials to victims of the past, and all-far right demos are met with even bigger counter demos.

Yet I know now how ignorance and hate can prevail if left unchecked, if not matched with education – at whatever corner of the globe I am in. In calling Germany home, I don’t feel I am confronting the past, as the past that we knew in 1938 no longer exists. But rather I am keeping wide eyes towards the future, both amid rising hope and rising red flags.

Member comments

  1. As child I watched the troop trains rushing up and down the rail road tracks across the street from where we lived in Gaffney, South Carolina. Then there was a practice air raid with the fire station siren sounding warnings. Then my father was drafted and went off to war. This created an interest in me for Germany and for World War II as I grew into my teenage years.

    For some reason I always wanted to meet a German girl. After three years service in the US Army I was called as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and assigned to the South German Mission in Baden-Wuertemberg where I served for 2 1/2 years. I grew to love Germany and the German people although they can be as bull-headed as any people I have ever met…especially the Swabs.

    After returning home I was accepted as a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. While at school I reacquainted myself with a beautiful, German girl I had met in Reutlingen. A year later we were married and today have 7 children and 8 grandchildren.

    In 2015-16 my wife and I served an 18 month mission in Friedrichsdorf and in Dresden. I love Germany and we were very happy living there but when it comes to a choice I choose to live permanently in the United States of America, the greatest and most free nation on earth.

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Swedish Iranians complain of ‘drastic drop’ in visas for relatives

Iranians living in Sweden are complaining that relatives are no longer being granted visas to visit, causing pain and heartbreak for one of Sweden's most established immigrant communities.

Swedish Iranians complain of 'drastic drop' in visas for relatives

“This has affected our community very greatly,” Kamran Chabokdavan, spokesperson for the Swedish-Iranian interest group, or Intresseföreningen för Svensk-Iranska frågor, told The Local. “There’s so many people who are feeling depressed or mistreated.”

He had planned to marry his Swedish partner in 2019, but has still not been able to as his parents have not been able to get a visa to come to Sweden, despite visiting, and returning back to Iran several times before. 

“If it was the first time that my parents came here, then it would be more reasonable to say that we cannot be sure that you will go back,” Chabokdavan, who works as a vet in Gothenburg, said. “But if the person has been here ten times before, and suddenly you decide to reject the application, that is a little bit odd.” 

The group now has 2,000 members on Facebook and has contacted the embassy in Tehran, Sweden’s foreign ministry, and MPs in two of Sweden’s political parties, who Chabokdavan said had promised to raise the issue in their parties and to the government.

Chabokdavan told The Local that many Iranians were suffering from the shift to a stricter visa policy. 

“Another member in our group had a sister who was a late-stage cancer patient at the hospital, and her parents couldn’t come here to say goodbye to her.” 

Rozita Akrami, a data scientist at Ericsson, also a group member, has collected data showing that Sweden is now the worst country in the Schengen area for giving visiting visas to Iranians, with only 35 percent of visa applications by friends and relatives of citizens accepted. 

She claims there was a “drastic drop” in the acceptance rate, from 55 per cent in 2018 to 35 percent in 2019, with France accepting 75 percent of visa applications from residents’ relatives that year and Switzerland 79 percent. 

“It seems that the Swedish embassy in Iran has decided to apply stricter criteria, which are really, really unclear,” Chabokdavan said. “It’s really not clear what’s the criteria is here, or why they are rejecting so many documents.” 

In a judgement from last week, the Migration Court ruled that the tougher approach taken by the Swedish embassy in Tehran was justified by a recent rise in the number of Iranians granted visas to Sweden who had then decided to stay and apply for asylum.  

“The embassy further notes that in recent years hundreds of Iranian citizens have applied for residency in Sweden after travelling in on a visa that had been granted,” the court said, justifying its decision to reject an appeal. 

“The embassy can point to the Migration Agency’s reports that a several of these people had had been granted visas previously, even several visas. As a result, visas previously awarded are not a strong indicator of an intention to return.” 

In its judgement, it also noted that sanctions against Iran had resulted in a “severely worsened economy”, with “high unemployment and a weakened currency”, while also pointing to growing “repression of religious minorities” and “imprisonment of political dissidents”. 

In a letter to the embassy in Tehran the group complained that there was no mechanism to replace documents rejected by the Swedish authorities, or to send in missing documents. The group also called for clarity on how applicants’ economic situation was assessed and how relevant it was, and called for the embassy to publish its official statistics from 2015 to 2022. 

“This is about parents who have lived for 60 to 70 years in their homeland and visited Sweden several times while always leaving the Schengen region before their visa has expired,” they wrote. 

Chabokdavan said that in some of the rejection letters, applicants had been told that the worsening economic situation in Iran made Sweden’s authorities worried that visiting relatives would not now return. 

Other rejection letters, he said, had stressed that just because the applicant had visited Sweden and then returned home to Iran many times before, did not mean that they could be relied upon to do so again. 

He said that it was unclear what documents would be enough to prove how well established and tied to Iran the visa applicants are. 

Iranians, who came to Sweden both after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, are one of Sweden’s most successful migrant groups, with 60 percent getting a university education, and many working within universities, or in high skilled professions.   

“These are people who are really established in Sweden by their job or their studies,” Chabokdavan said. “And their parents usually have a strong, economical base in Iran, otherwise, they couldn’t get this kind of visa from the beginning.”

The Local has contacted the Swedish foreign ministry and the embassy in Tehran for comment.