'We reclaimed what was taken from my Jewish grandparents - German citizenship'
In early 1939, Renata Rowe’s grandparents and father arrived in Australia ‘stateless’, after escaping the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. Over 75 years later, Rowe decided to reclaim her heritage by becoming a German citizen.
This is the second in a series of profiles exploring the experiences of people who have gained German citizenship and the impact it has had on their lives.
Renata Rowe, a deputy headteacher from Melbourne, Australia, began researching her family’s history about three years ago.
“I learnt that my father left Berlin at the age of four in February 1939 with his parents - both secular and very assimilated Jews - and arrived in Australia,” the 58-year-old recalls.
Rowe’s grandfather, Martin Reich, was one of seven siblings, five of whom left Berlin before the Second World War broke out. Between 1936 and 1939 they emigrated to Colombia, Australia and Palestine.
“After Kristallnacht, my grandfather had to travel around on the U-Bahn and at night to avoid being picked up by the Gestapo. This upset my grandmother and of course they had a three year old, my father, so they began to look for places to go.”
“We don't know why my grandfather came to Australia, rather than the many other places Jews went. But he did, and because of this he had four granddaughters and four great grandchildren. It is because of him that I am alive living in Melbourne, Australia!”
Although Rowe’s grandparents were able to make a new life for themselves in Australia, two of her grandfather’s siblings remained in Berlin. One of the two, Rowe’s great aunt, was eventually imprisoned in a concentration camp along with her family.
“My grandfather's sister Ilona was deported from Mitte on December 9th, 1942, with her husband Erwin Cierer and their two children, Michael and Denny. They sadly perished in Auschwitz and there are some ‘Stolpersteine’ (memorial cobblestones) memorializing them in Keibelstrasse Berlin.”
Cierer family Holocaust memorial stones. Photo: Anja Samy
The other remaining sibling, Siegfried Reich, married a Christian woman, and miraculously managed to avoid the same fate as his sister and the six million other victims of the Holocaust. Protected by his wife’s brothers in the Luftwaffe and armed forces, and his nephew in the SS, he managed to live through the war in northern Berlin.
“He had false papers and worked at KaDaWe for most of the war, until he was denounced by a fellow Jew called Johnny Friedlaender and picked up by the Gestapo,” she explains.
As Siegfried continued to claim to be ‘Aryan’ during his interrogation, he was not imprisoned in a concentration camp but instead was sent to do construction work in Poland, from which he managed to escape and return to Berlin.
Siegfried’s daughter, Margot, also survived the war and died only recently in 2016.
Although Margot declined contact with her, Rowe was able to meet one of Siegfried’s nephews, Gerhard, who is still living in Berlin at the age of 82.
Rowe’s extensive research of her family history began in early 2015 and it was also around this time that she, along with her sisters and daughters, decided to reclaim the German citizenship which her grandparents had lost back in 1939.
“We wanted to somehow have returned what was taken from my grandparents and father - their right to German citizenship - as they had arrived in Australia stateless,” she explains.
“My grandad, Martin Reich, never wanted to leave Berlin. It was on his wife’s insistence that he did, thankfully. I think my grandad always wanted to return but my grandmother felt she had been too humiliated.”
She set about gathering the documentation such as birth certificates, evidence that her grandparents were Jews, and evidence that they had arrived as stateless people in Australia.
Although the German consulate in Sydney said it would take about a year to process the application, it actually only took about nine months. In October 2015, she and her family were invited to the embassy to be given their citizenship papers.
Rowe now has dual Australian and German citizenship, one of her daughters has in fact got four passports.
“My youngest daughter has Australian, Fijian as she was adopted from there, New Zealand as her Dad is a Kiwi, and now German," she says. "We were told however that if any of us were to add another citizenship after achieving German citizenship, but not before, that we would have to relinquish the German citizenship.”
Rowe was glad to be able to reclaim what was taken from her late grandparents all those years ago. “It was a good feeling to be able to get back what was rightfully theirs, even though it was 76 years later!”
“We felt very grateful that the German government had made this restitution possible and that they included all the descendants of my grandparents. I think now all four of my sisters have citizenship, and the children of myself and one other sister.”
For Rowe and her sisters, researching their family history and gaining German citizenship helped them to reflect on what their grandparents went through.
“We thought about how brave they were to leave everything they knew and set out for the unknown to save their family, how generous Australia was to them at the time to let them in and how all of us would not be here if they hadn't left.”
She and her husband are considering moving to Germany for a short time in the future, to explore the country more.
“One day, when we retire, we would like to live for a year perhaps in Germany, to learn German and get to know the place on a deeper level. We somehow feel that we belong there despite the reasons why my family was forced to leave.”
Read the first article in this series: 'Getting German citizenship enabled me to see my family for the first time in years'