Exposing a Tear in Identity

Terry Schwadron
5 min readMay 6, 2024

Terry H. Schwadron

May 6, 2024

The surreal scene this week left me emotionally unsteady, a moment in which the only identity I could be sure of was the partnership of a loving wife and the spiritual closeness of our immediate, but dispersed family. My wife and I were at the German consulate in New York among three dozen Jews being welcomed by the German government to restored German citizenship ripped from my family — and theirs — seven decades ago.

At a time in which labels of identity are so nebulous and even dangerous, when expectations loom large for how I am expected to feel about everything from Israel and Gaza to how we view former national enemies, it was a somber and serious moment in which conversations with my mom, the realities of war and hunger, the meaning of family all flashed by in a maze.

In one moment, in one document, my American-born self was now a repatriated, naturalized dual citizen of Germany, eligible for an EU-able passport, recipient of a restitution from a German government that changed its Constitution to make amends to families like mine.

Overlooking the UN and the East River, a pianist playing Felix Mendelssohn (identified at the event as a Jewish composer), here was the consul general asking gently about what happened after the Nazis forced my mother’s family to flee when she was a teen. It was a miracle I was here, I said, but for Nazis, Japanese, rampant hunger and disease, and an American with a saxophone in one hand and a M-1 rifle in the other.

After Kristallnacht, after expulsion from parks and schools, after Star of David-clad mom was spat upon, the war was on. It was already 1941 after she was arrested and finally freed from jail when she, her parents and young brother fled east to the only place they could go with no visa — Shanghai. They arrived in time for the Japanese invaders decided to lock up Jews for the duration in sympathy with Nazi allies.

The history told through her eyes, the flight, the enduring and constant obstacles, and the improbabilities that brought about her chance meeting and eventual marriage to the U.S. Marine musician who was my dad formed the single-most important part of my upbringing. It was a love story, an adventure story, an emotional trek that left my parents and brother to make our way in the United States, while my mother’s family insisted on continuing to Argentina, where most of my cousins still live, under the very means Americans trash as illegal.

The story we all share in my family had just shifted, but one in which our children and grandchildren can know they are and also can seek naturalization status and gain some practical opportunity for work and learning.

Muddling Identity

Whether for true atonement or for good international public relations, Germany adopted immigration changes some years ago to restore citizen status to “victims of persecution by the Nazi regime who were deprived of their German nationality on political, racial or religious grounds between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945.”

In the same week in which people are shouting ethnic slogans at college protests, in which birth and family is being equated with support for military or terroristic policies halfway around the globe, a piece of paper was presenting me with yet another twist on who I am in the world. What does anti-Semitism mean, what strangeness does war produce, why am I only to be the sum of my assigned labels?

In his remarks, Consul General David Gill talked about the efforts to restore Jewish life and about the hurt of Naziism against Jews and others. Evenhandedly, he acknowledged emotions and tensions brought about by the Israel-Hamas war and stressed a hope both for release of hostages and for an end to humanitarian concerns in Gaza.

He did not talk about increasingly ill German attitudes towards migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine or the reported rise in a political right in Europe (or this country) that is all-too familiar in its ferociousness. In its zeal for atonement against Jews, Roma and others, now Germany bans the gatherings of in-country Palestinians, and has lined up as rather one-sided supporter of Israeli response in Gaza.

Indeed, the consul general said the New York consulate is handling about 1,000 naturalization restoration cases a year. There are under 200,000 Jews among Germanys 83 million.

My late mother refused to teach my brother, Steven, and me to speak German; she and dad would not buy a German or Japanese car. They gave long consideration before accepting a reparations check written by the West German government in partial payment for stealing my mother’s teenage years. It went to buy a stereo in the living room. We didn’t have a dog because the guard dogs in Shanghai left mom with permanent fear. The sole time I was with my mom as a plane landed in Germany for refueling, she remained white-knuckled and silent until we left.

The hurt was permanent.

Can We Learn?

My mother talked to us frequently about her family’s inhumane treatment at the hands of Nazis and Japanese guards. She told it all to the Stephen Spielberg oral historians at the USC Shoah Foundation and to fellow congregants in our West Los Angeles synagogue.

The stories have found their way into one daughter’s paintings, a son’s music, and our younger daughter’s Masters Project in dance. She has since returned to Hamburg to stage and film dance in the very Jewish school where mom was forced to attend — on the top floor most subject to wartime bomb damage — and to find that today’s “Jews” are “stateless” immigrants fighting for dignity. My uncle Pedro, mom’s brother, worked with one of his daughters to create a film project called 818 Tong Shan Road that takes viewers to the Shanghai flat where four families spent nearly seven years in a single space.

I wrote Our Journey: A Second Chance to celebrate mom’s recollections and give the extended family a common text.

We’ve not kept our story secret. Rather we hope that exploring it, people learn about avoiding the worst that people can wreak on one another.

Nothing about getting this piece of paper changes any of what happened. I’m neither decamping to Europe nor suggesting that this token from the German government is restitution for the millions of ruined lives that trace back to the Holocaust.

Rather, I welcome the familiarity of doubt that can accompany a singular event to try to capture layers of what has formed a lifetime.