The recent election in the United Kingdom has made the likelihood of a hard Brexit more likely with each day. The Conservatives, under leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson, now enjoy a large majority in Parliament, giving them a mandate to push through their anti-European agenda with relative ease.
This has left many Europhiles, including myself, in a state of disbelief, disarray and disappointment. Due to the uncertain nature of movement into the European Union, many in the UK have been looking towards their ancestry to find any means of getting a hold of a European passport. Some friends of mine have been able to start the process of gaining Irish citizenship through parents or grandparents, whereas others have had to look further afield for any potential continental relatives.
Many Brits with Jewish ancestry have been looking into the possibility of German or Austrian citizenship through laws brought in by the respective governments to repatriate those displaced by the Shoah and their families. My mother has taken advantage of these laws and recently received her Austrian passport after a lengthy process.
Our Austrian connection comes through my grandfather who was born in Vienna to a Jewish family. Along with thousands of other children persecuted by the Nazi regime, my grandfather was forced to flee his hometown in 1938 on the Kindertransport, a rescue effort which saved thousands of young Jewish Austrians, Czechoslovaks and Poles. After the war my grandfather settled in London where my mother was brought up.
Austria played a large part in both mine and my mother’s upbringing. We spend every summer in the spa town of Bad Vöslau, a spot frequented by many Viennese Jewish families before the Second World War. We both speak German, enjoy Austrian culture and cuisine and have lived in Vienna at various points in our lives. This negated any questions surrounding identity when my mother acquired her Austrian passport. However, this option was not open for me as the clause which allows for family members of those displaced by the Shoah applies only to 1st and 2nd generation victims. This left me looking for other ways to obtain citizenship of an EU country.
After the death of my grandfather ten years ago, my family began to delve further into our own history. Letters and documents which we previously didn’t know existed were found, painting a picture of a family deeply rooted in Central European history. Like many Jewish families living under the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, my family moved to various towns and cities where work was available and needed. Our family, the Placeks, were dotted around small villages around what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, before moving to Budapest where my great grandparents were born. Due to Hungary’s relaxed citizenship laws this would qualify me to apply for Hungarian citizenship.
However, this brought up some more complicated questions regarding identity.
Recently I was admitted into the Central European University (CEU), which, due to the actions of Viktor Orban’s authoritarian government, has been forced to leave its home in Budapest for Vienna. The university has stood for tolerance and openness, as well as having a distinctly European identity, my main reasons for joining. This has also meant that my studies have been split between Budapest and Vienna, giving me the opportunity to visit those areas where my ancestors used to reside.
Orban has displayed unquestionably anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent years: commissioning anti-Semitic posters of Jewish billionaire philanthropist, and founder of my university, George Soros, as well as making references in speeches to an enemy within, an old trope used to refer to the backstabbing myth of the Jewish people. It was these same messages which forced my grandfather to leave the country of his birth and led to his mother being sent to Maly Trostinec where she was murdered in 1942.
If I am to take up the option of Hungarian citizenship, does this mean I am ignoring these acts of racism and the events of my own family?
I looked to my mother for guidance and whether she considered this when applying for her Austrian passport. Until a few months ago Austria was governed by a coalition including the far-right Freedom Party, formerly led by an SS Officer and a past seeped in the legacy of the National Socialist Party.
“But this is our way of being European, of taking back an identity that was taken from us”, she argued.
The same could be said for myself: the Nazis took our right to be central European, and now my right to be European has also been retracted. This is a chance to reclaim both.
Obtaining Hungarian citizenship means involving myself in the culture to my best ability, learning the language and being politically engaged and active. 80 years later, many of us are returning to the hometowns of our parents and grandparents, rediscovering and reclaiming an identity taken from us.
by Nick Cosburn
Nick is an English student of Austrian and Hungarian descent. After studying German and Politics at Leeds University, Nick is currently studying for an MA in Political Science at the Central European University. He has strong interests in politics, football, architecture and everything in between.