“You must not smile,” was the humorless imperative given by the photographer the day I got my German passport photo taken. I struggled to comply. It wasn’t because of his cliché German accent, nor was it a consequence of my parents’ relentless efforts to make me to smile in every picture ever taken throughout my childhood. Rather, my grin grew from the satisfaction I felt after working for years to be repatriated as a German citizen.
In the winter of 2008, sitting weather bound in traffic on Madison Avenue, my dad flipped on NPR. The broadcast playing was an interview with someone who had been repatriated as a German citizen because he was a direct descendent of someone who had been stripped of citizenship by the Nazis during World War II. In 1939, my grandmother, who had a Jewish father, was also expelled from Germany by the Nazis and fled to the United States. I call her Omi. There, in the car, it hit me that as her direct descendant, I too qualified for German citizenship, and better yet, to live and work in the twenty-seven countries of the European Union.
My dad and I called the German consulate the following Monday, and they told us that we would need documented evidence of my Omi’s expatriation by the Nazi party. At first, we were able to find all the birth certificates we would need to prove our lineage, but after a few weeks of looking through as many family files as possible, we were unable to find anything about her citizenship being revoked. We were stuck at a dead end. To say I was upset would be an atrocious understatement.
Later that summer, my family drove up to my Omi’s house in Putney, Vermont. Upon our arrival, my dad and I began digging through drawers for anything that looked old, foreign, and official. After hours of digging, we came across an aged chestnut cabinet with four drawers. In the bottom left drawer was a clothbound, faded file folder. Its contents practically brought tears to my father’s eyes. On top were stories my Omi had written when she was in 8th grade about how she and her friends had helped clean up all the broken glass the morning after kristallnacht. There was even a letter her father had written in his broken English that began, “Dear President Roosevelt,” begging him for a place in the United States in which his family could reside. The most important thing we found, however, was a passport. It had belonged to my Omi when she was nine years old. Stamped cruelly across her cherubic, black and white portrait was an eagle with a swastika in its talons, and the word, “staatlos,” which is German for stateless. She was not smiling. We had the last piece of the puzzle.
After three years of waiting, and mountains of paper work, my dad, my brother, and I stood formally dressed in the top floor assembly room of the German consulate for our repatriation ceremony. The speaker went on about the wrongs of the Nazi regime, and how the ceremony served as a humble reconciliation. While he spoke, I stared out the window. I couldn’t take my eyes off the arc shaped row of flags outside the United Nations that mirrored the shape of my mouth. The smiling could begin.
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