My Grandparents Fled the Holocaust, and I Returned to Their Homeland After Reclaiming Their Citizenship — Here's What It Was Like

Austria and Germany passed laws allowing descendants of victims of Nazi persecution to reclaim their citizenship. I'm one of the new citizens under this law.

Residential buildings in Historic center of Vienna, classic European architecture against blue sky
Photo: Getty Images

I am not a debutante.

You cannot imagine my shock walking into the resplendent Carlone Hall at the Upper Belvedere museum, dripping in frescoes and chandeliers, and hearing my sister say that my grandmother's debutante ball was here. "Here" meaning in a palace built for a prince that became the residence for Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne whose assassination started World War I.

Both of my grandparents on my mother's side were Austrian Jews who escaped the Holocaust.

Austria and Germany recently passed laws allowing the descendants of victims of Nazi persecution to reclaim the citizenship that the regime stripped of Jews. In Austria, this is section 58c of the Austrian Nationality Act, and in Germany, it is Article 116 of the Basic Law.

I am one of the 14,785 new Austrian citizens under this law, the Austrian Foreign Ministry told Travel + Leisure, more than 3,000 of whom are from the United States, like me.

I recently traveled to Austria and Germany to commemorate the occasion. It was a healing and insightful trip. I spoke to several descendants of victims of Nazi persecution who reclaimed or were in the process of reclaiming their citizenship to both countries. Nearly every one of them had been back to Austria or Germany or were planning a trip there to visit the places where their family members once lived.

Returning to Austria

My mom invited me, her husband, my sister, and my sister's boyfriend for an Austrian dessert tour and celebration; my mom is also a new Austrian dual citizen.

We walked the streets my grandparents had and visited the places where they spent time before they were forced to flee. Every day came with new memories and — for me — shocking information. My great-grandfather had an office at Stephansplatz 3, the very center of Vienna, just across the infamous St. Stephen's Cathedral. He rode horses at the prestigious Spanish Riding School. We also went to the Vienna State Opera, one of the world's leading opera houses, which they frequented.

As someone who had never been to the opera before this trip, I was struck by the chasm between the way my grandmother and I grew up. I couldn't help but think about all they had lost, though it was not nearly as much as others.

My great-grandmother, Loni Feitler, regularly traveled to Germany and was afraid of the rising tide of antisemitism and Nazism. She encouraged her husband, Paul, to find a diplomatic posting for a foreign government; he got one for the government of Colombia. But he didn't speak Spanish — that's where my future grandfather, Joseph Gleicher (later Gay — the U.S .military changed his name because they couldn't pronounce it) came in. My grandfather left Vienna because it was "no place for a poor Jew." He learned Spanish and made himself invaluable, gaining savings that would later save many Jewish lives.

By 1930, my grandmother's classmate told her, "I'm going to kill you. You're Jewish. You have to be killed," according to an interview we have with my grandmother, who passed away in 2003. Her grandfather was third on Hitler's hit list.

Working for the government of Colombia gave them some protection; my grandmother, Elisabeth Feitler, began only speaking Spanish and wearing a Colombian insignia, or being escorted by a friend wearing a swastika.

After Germany annexed Austria in the 1938 Anschluss, my grandmother said, "People who had been super friendly to me before — kissed my hand — the following day, they spat at me." They left for Hungary, but were turned back. Eventually, she escaped with her parents to Switzerland on forged papers. The forger was exterminated in a concentration camp.

My grandfather found a Colombian official he could bribe — $100 per visa. He managed to get 2,500 visas for Jews to Colombia, many of which he gave to complete strangers.

Eventually, both my grandparents made it to New York and got married.

Asked if she felt American, my grandmother said, "No, never. I can manage with Americans, and I love some of them, but I think in my soul, no. It's my big problem that I can't forget Austria. I would like to find a real homeland, and my real homeland is Altaussee." I cried reading this.

We went to Altaussee, where my grandmother's family had a house. It would have been one of the 29 Jewish homes that were "Aryanized" (or made less Jewish), when the Nazis took over. It's home to the biggest salt mine in Austria, where the Nazis stored their looted art. Altaussee is a beautiful town situated around Lake Altaussee, where people still wear traditional dirndls and lederhosen.

We also went to Saint Wolfgang, to take a picture in the same arch where my great-grandparents have a photo, next to the church. Looking out over the lake, my mother, Jill Gay, said to me, "It's so strange. Now it's not just that Austria did these bad things. Now I am a citizen, and it's my responsibility to fix things, too."

Antonia Praun, deputy spokesperson for the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told T+L, "For far too long, Austria saw itself merely as a victim of National Socialism. Today, we fully accept our historic responsibility and are continuously committed in our foreign policy to counter antisemitism, violence, hatred, and discrimination worldwide. For only in this way can we succeed in turning a 'never forget' into a 'never again.'"

That, she said, is why Austria chose to allow descendants to reclaim citizenship. "It is a long-overdue gesture to support those affected to regain a part of their identity that was unforgivably taken away from them more than half a century ago."

One of the new dual Austrian-Canadian citizens I spoke to, Mason Protter, said of his trip back to Austria, "I admired the Austrian people's commitment to talking honestly about what happened, and learning from their past. I know people often say they are not as good in this respect as Germans, but I think their efforts are still admirable even if there may be more work to do."

My First Time in Germany

After our family trip, I headed to Germany solo. I'm a digital nomad, so traveling while working is what I do. I had never been to Germany before and recently discovered that my grandmother's family originally came from the country. I was a bit nervous to visit, but it was a positive experience.

Much more than in Austria, the history and memory of the Holocaust felt omnipresent in Germany — and not in a bad way.

Dr. Jochen Birkenmeier, scholarly director and curator of the Lutherhaus in Eisenach and its new exhibit on the town's "Dejudaization Institute" said, "The memory of the Holocaust is very present in German society. Accordingly, anti-Jewish behavior is strongly tabooed and also triggers strong public reactions. There is a strong culture of remembrance, generous state support, and a strong effort to promote Jewish life in Germany."

Nearly every conversation I had in Germany included a discussion of World War II history.

In Berlin, Arne Krasting from VideoSightseeing showed me where the Nazi students burned 20,000 books on May 10, 1933. Now, there's a memorial at Bebelplatz featuring empty underground bookshelves, with space for 20,000 books. When I told Krasting about my grandparents escaping the Nazis, he shared with me that his parents had been part of the Hitler Youth — membership was mandatory for Aryans under the Hitler Youth Law. That and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe were the most impactful for me.

In need of a break from learning about the Holocaust, I visited Berlin's iconic TV Tower and Berlin's Odyssey virtual reality exhibit. I also went for a street art tour where I stumbled into more Jewish history. Haus Schwarzenberg, a hot spot for all kinds of street art, was the site of Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind. He protected blind and handicapped Jews, who would have been the first to be killed by the Nazis, by employing them in his workshop.

Then, I took a short train ride to Thuringia, popular with German tourists, but still under the radar for Americans. I started in Erfurt, where I was stunned by the exterminated and recovered Jewish history. A prime example is the Old Synagogue, currently pending for UNESCO World Heritage status. It's one of the best-preserved medieval synagogues in Europe, with parts that date back to the 11th century. In the Erfurt massacre of 1349, the town's Jewish population was murdered and expelled. The synagogue's history was completely forgotten — one reason it's so well preserved. By the 1930s, it became a restaurant where Nazis danced. It wasn't until 1988 that the building's original purpose was rediscovered by art historian Margot Peterseim, who figured it out by chipping away at the wall in the bathroom, according to my guide, Sabine Hahnel. Today, the synagogue is home to the Erfurt treasure, which includes an intricate type of Jewish wedding ring — one of only three in the world. I felt comfortable in Erfurt, and like the city was making a real effort to honor and preserve the Jewish heritage that remained.

Erfurt is also home to the Merchants' Bridge, the longest series of inhabited buildings on any bridge in Europe. I walked the treetop canopy in Hainich National Park and visited the Wartburg Castle — both UNESCO World Heritage sites — as well as the "Dejudaization Institute" exhibit at the Lutherhaus in Eisenach — a must for anyone wanting to explore Jewish history in Germany.

Another short train ride brought me to the UNESCO-designated Bamberg, famous for its smoked beer. The Jewish history here felt almost like a secret — something you may not find unless you know it exists. The town has a mikvah, a ritual Jewish bath, in an unmarked building only open on Sundays. There's an exhibit on Bamberg's Jewish history in the town's main museum, which includes a moving diary of a young girl. There's also a small monument for the synagogue that was destroyed in 1938. Until 2020, landscape paintings of Bamberg from a Nazi artist hung in the town's municipality. And yet, things are slowly changing. Bamberg paid 350,000 euros to a Jewish family after learning a lion statue in their possession had been taken from the family. A new art installation of pillars in places where Bamberg's Jewish life existed is slowly going up — so far, three of 10 pillars have been erected.

The Willy Aron Society in Bamberg is working to install stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, to denote where Jews lived and make the city's history more visible. Stolpersteine commemorate the victims and survivors of Nazi persecution. It's the largest decentralized memorial in the world, and I came across the stolpersteine throughout my trip. Before embarking on the project, the Willy Aron Society asked the town's small reestablished Jewish community for their thoughts on the initiative. The Jewish community endorsed the project, but said that they would not help with it. "You killed our people. It is your job to do this project," said Andreas Ullman, one of the society's vice presidents, paraphrasing what they were told.

The society is named after Willy Aron, the first Jewish victim of the Nazis in Bamberg. He's honored by the town's Memorial for Resistance and Civil Courage, which includes Jewish, Catholic, and military resistance leaders. It also has two empty spaces to show that everyone must resist unjust actions. That's the idea behind the Willy Aron Society, which consists of 17 non-Jewish members. The members I spoke to got involved because they were horrified at Germany's history, and in some cases, by their own family history. "When my children were born, I wanted to make sure it never happened again," said Mechthildis Bocksch, one of the society's vice presidents. Meeting them filled me with hope.

Reclaiming Citizenship

This trip pushed my Jewish identity to the forefront in a way that my Latina and multicultural identity is every day — I was constantly on high alert for antisemitism, how I am with racism daily.

Many of the complexities I associate with my own identity as a multicultural Latina exist for Jewish individuals as well. My fellow applicants seeking to reclaim their Austrian and German citizenship spoke of a complicated relationship with Judaism, being European, and their identity as a descendant of a victim of Nazi persecution. They expressed worry about not "belonging" because of not being "Jewish enough" or not speaking German.

"In some groups, I'm 'the Jew,' and in others, I'm not; in some groups, I'm 'the European,' and in others, I'm not. It's a complicated thing. To me, at least, it's useful to remind myself that I feel this way exactly because it's a quintessentially European Jewish story — one of expulsion, shame, and assimilation, and I've made the choice to revive that part of my background and find the parts that bring me joy rather than discomfort and pain," said Bronwyn Cragg, a new Austrian and Canadian dual citizen.

Many chose to apply for citizenship for the ease of living, working, and traveling in the European Union, including a better work-life balance and health care, and because of the fear of rising antisemitism in the U.S. Nearly everyone also expressed a desire to reconnect with their heritage, right a historic wrong, and restore justice by reclaiming citizenship. Many had gotten more involved with Jewish life, studied World War II history, and begun learning Hebrew or German. They also gained a renewed interest in family history that had often been buried, not discussed, exterminated, or forgotten because of the trauma of the Holocaust. One of the women I interviewed wanted to remain anonymous because she did not feel safe advertising her Jewish roots. For all, it was a sensitive and emotional topic.

"I wanted to reclaim part of my heritage," said Ruth Klempner, a new British and Austrian dual citizen who is also half Jamaican. "I will probably cry upon entry into Austrian air space, but I'm determined to go. We will go with the intention of discovering as much about our lost family as possible. I feel now that it is my task to discover as much about what happened to my family as I can. I feel obligated to do this, and I want to do this. And I think that they would want me to be able to discover the beauty of the city they loved, Vienna."

I ended my trip in Munich, where I started an email to my family asking, "What do you think about getting stolpersteine for O'Bear and Opi?" (This is what we called my grandparents.)

The laws allowing descendants to reclaim citizenship "will enable more descendants to connect and engage with countries of their ancestors. Maybe people will feel more comfortable visiting," said Michael Newman, chief executive of the Association of Jewish Refugees. I know that was true for me.

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