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A German Law Rectifies Racism, Legitimizes Sexism

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Recently I sought to apply for dual German citizenship through a law intended to return citizenship not only to those who had it revoked under National Socialism but also to their descendants. As I learned, the law, intended to redress anti-Semitism, perpetuates sexism. Its impact is not only discriminatory; in the case of my family, it is arbitrary and unfair.

The story begins with my grandmother, who was born in Berlin in 1921. She was raised a Christian because her grandfather had converted from Judaism to Christianity years earlier. With the rise of the Nazis, however, she and her family were considered Jews and after 1933, their lives were suddenly at risk.

My grandmother quickly came to experience discrimination first hand: she was no longer allowed to sit with her friends at school or participate in the activities she once joined. When her father lost his prominent job that year, it became clear to her parents that they no longer had a future in Germany. In 1935 at the age of 14, my grandmother was sent alone to a boarding school in England and was not reunited with her family until two years later in New York.

My grandmother's story pales in comparison to the great horrors we connect to the Third Reich, but it is still a tale of injustice for a family. Her way of life and connection to country and family history were lost all at once. It is a story of discrimination, forced separation, significant economic loss and, very important, statelessness until she became an American citizen in 1945.

In 1942 my grandmother married my grandfather, an American, and ultimately had four children. My mother, the oldest, was born in 1944 and three additional siblings were born in 1946, 1951 and 1958. None of them had a connection to Germany and my grandmother, with her own ambivalent feelings toward her country of origin, did not encourage it. For a variety of reasons, in college I developed an interest in Germany, and, ultimately, came to live there for more than four years.

Recently I learned about Article 116(2) of the 1949 German Grundgesetz -- Basic Law -- that restores citizenship to former Jewish Germans who had their citizenship revoked under National Socialism. The law also applies to their descendants, many of whom would be German today were it not for the racist laws of 1933 and 1941 that took citizenship away from their parents or grandparents.

As I thought about this law, I realized I wanted what had been denied to my family and therefore sought to apply for dual citizenship, figuring mine was a clear-cut case. In fact, it is anything but. It appears that while the German government has formally sought to address historical religious discrimination, it is still honoring historical gender discrimination.

Up until 1953, citizenship for all Germans was inherited only through fathers. If a German woman married a non-German, her children were not German in the eyes of the State. After 1953, the children of German mothers could be considered German under petition and it it was not until 1975 that their offspring were automatic citizens.

When the German government went to rectify the injustice of the Nazi law, it left standing those aspects that discriminate against the descendants of women. This means that only descendants born after 1953 to a Jewish woman can claim citizenship. In my family's case it means that my mother's youngest brother and his daughter, but none of the rest of us, can hold German citizenship.

When I pointed out the wrongness of this to a German consulate representative, I was in essence told that this was acceptable because this particular law applied to everyone and not just Jews. To make a special exemption for former German Jews would be inconsistent. But gender discrimination was as wrong then as it is now and it is unconscionable to deny to the descendants of women what is being offered to the descendants of men.

I am reminded of a line from the BBC's The Office, in which an insensitive colleague casually references the name of a dog, a racial slur, from a 1954 movie. As others balk, he explains that the name was fine to use then because "that was before racism was bad."

In essence, I have been told that the German government can still honor this discriminatory law against women because it was created before sexism was bad.

The injustice experienced by women under the Nazis was in no way less than that of men. They and their descendants should not be treated any differently now. This law needs to be changed. The U.S. government, representing many of these would-be citizens, should play a positive role in pushing for this change.