:: Article

On Becoming German

By Madeleine Dunnigan.

It is Sunday, one month after our appointment at the German embassy, and my mother has made roast chicken for one of our semi-regular family dinners.

She makes a paste of butter, garlic, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sorrel and whatever else she can get her hands on and slides her fingers between the chicken’s skin and flesh, pressing down the green, herby mixture. It is important not to break the skin, or else the butter will leak out and burn. It’s surprising how far you can reach; all the way to the thighs, the flesh firm and taught, the skin stretching to create room for your searching fingers. It is a messy job. But the chicken emerges from the oven fragrant, sharp and rich; the meat soft, the skin crispy. A time-honoured family favourite.

‘Today I wrote a piece on becoming German,’ my mother announces, placing her napkin on the table and leaning back in her chair.

My stomach tightens.

My sister sighs. ‘I’ve planned mine,’ she says, ‘but I don’t know when I’m going to have time to write it.’

Her too.

My sister is a Commissioning Editor at one of the best independent publishers in the country. I quit my job to write but I have not yet written a piece on becoming German. I’ve thought about it, yes, but don’t know what I am going to say. I’m less bothered about my mother, but the prospect of my sister’s piece fills me with panic.

‘Shall we write one together?’ I suggest.

My sister hunches further down in her chair, her curly hair obscuring her face.

‘I’ve already planned it.’

‘Have any of you actually thought what it means? Becoming German?’ my father, who is Scottish, asks.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say, ignoring him. I try to keep my voice nonchalant. ‘Where are you going to pitch it?’

‘I’m not sure,’ my sister says.

‘So write one with me.’

My sister’s planning and forethought is unsettling, as though she has climbed into my brain and thought my thoughts before me—a strange feeling I am familiar with as the younger sibling.

‘She doesn’t want to, stop harassing her,’ my mother says. My sister gets up from the table and walks out of the room. My mother looks at me. ‘You mustn’t be like that.’

I roll my eyes and place the now clean bone with the others on my plate. Hiding my disappointment, I resign myself to writing alone.

And yet I know my text will have a double: what I imagine my sister to be formulating haunts me, and I write both toward and away from it.

 

Becoming German is an exercise in bureaucracy

I am sitting in a small room nestled within the lobby of the German Embassy. Its glass walls give me the feeling of being suspended in space, held between the security X-ray and the promise of another nationality. The wall that faces the street is made from one-way glass. My mother and sister are late and, as I sit waiting for them, I feel a mounting sense of panic. I had to leave my phone in a security locker, so I can’t contact them. I see my mother turn the corner of the street and walk toward the embassy. She pauses. There is a sign that points to various departments. She turns right, down the side of the building. Wrong. My sister runs around the corner, her scarf flapping wildly, and follows my mother. Wrong again.

I am trying to signal to them. If they had read the email properly, they would know we had first to come to the main entrance, ‘up the steps of the seventies style building’, for our Naturalisation appointment. Then I realise that they cannot see me and I sit back down, staring at the empty street.

A few moments later they emerge, harried, and approach the main entrance. We are now late for our appointment, which feels like a very un-German thing to be. I watch from my glass box as they go through the rigmarole I have just been through—handing over ID, receiving a visitor’s badge, placing their bags on the side, walking through the X-ray, retrieving their bags. My mother has a deep frown on her face.

‘I forgot to do my eyebrows,’ she says, looking at herself in a compact mirror.

My sister disentangles herself from her scarf. I am irritated at having had to wait despite the multiple texts my mother sent that morning insisting we must not be late! My sister’s scarf is endless, coil after coil of purple and green wool.

‘Remember you have to leave your phone outside,’ I snap.

‘I know,’ my sister says. ‘We literally just did that. I told Robin I was spending the day with my mother and sister and that they were going to make me feel stupid and small,’ she pulls the final coil from her neck, ‘thanks for starting it off.’

I have that feeling of being seen for what I really am and turn away.

‘Girls,’ my mother says.

*

We become German the moment we are given our Naturalisation papers. It is, as Juliane, the neatly-dressed embassy administrator, says, our German birthday: 17 December 2019, about 10:45 am. Has becoming German somehow levelled the playing field? Do I catch up the two years and nine months my sister has on me?

In fact, Juliane presents me with my certificate before presenting my sister with hers, so, technically, I have been German longer.

We are also given a dual flag pin badge, British and German, and a ‘quintessential’ German treat: gummy bears. I eat mine immediately while my sister puts hers in her pocket, for posterity. This is both annoying and ironic: her pack contains a wide variety of colours while mine has only yellow and green. I put another boring lemon gummy into my mouth as I watch her slide her packet, rich with blackcurrant, strawberry, orange and mysterious pale flavour bears, into her pocket. My sister still has Easter eggs from when we were little on her shelf.

Juliane talks about the practicalities of our becoming German. When we receive our German passport, we must use it every time we leave or enter Germany. When we fill in forms, we must state we are dual nationality. We are able to access free education and healthcare in Germany. We do not have to pay tax unless we live there. A spouse is only eligible for citizenship if both parties live in the country for over eight years. We must notify the German embassy if we apply for a third nationality. Failure to do so will result in the irrevocable recantation of our German citizenship.

‘How would your mother feel about it?’ Juliane asks my mother.

It took us two years to get here. Two years of emails, of searching for birth certificates, marriage certificates, proof of address, proof of no address, proof of not being German. After such bureaucratic feats we are not prepared for this question, for Juliane’s empathy.

‘She would be happy, I think. She would understand.’ My mother chokes up and her body becomes smaller.

My sister is silent, fingering the corner of her certificate.

‘She was a very practical woman,’ I say, ‘she would support us.’

‘It is very emotional. You being welcomed back to the country that was her home, that took her home away,’ Juliane says.

We sit and think about this, the air charged with all the things we are not saying.

I want Juliane to like us: to find us pleasant and charming.  I am worried that if we are not these things, if we are provocative, or emotional, or angry—i.e. ourselves—she will change her mind and pluck the Naturalisation papers from our hands. She won’t get my gummies though, I think, popping the last one into my mouth.

But my grandmother did not consider herself German, or Jewish: she considered herself European. The irony is not lost on me: we have applied for German citizenship precisely in order to remain European.

Juliane is still looking at us expectantly.

Most probably my grandmother would laugh if she knew, I think as I crumple the empty pack of gummies in my hand.

 

Becoming German is a lesson in history

Germany as a country is a disparate concept, my father tells me. During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was made up of hundreds of principalities, and each of those principalities had different customs, governing bodies, dialects and ethnicities. One of the penalties imposed on Germany after the First World War was the confiscation of much of its land—a bit given, technically given back, to Poland, some to Austria. Some used to create a whole new country. So Germany, as you know it, is a fabricated concept. All nations are. And by extension so is what it means to be German.

‘No one has asked me how I feel,’ he says at the same Sunday dinner where my mother and sister reveal their writing plans. ‘How would you feel if you woke up one morning and you were married to a bunch of Germans?’

My sister points out that he is in fact only married to one German, the other two are his daughters. We laugh at the time but, weeks and months later, I am still thinking about his question.

We have sought out German passports because we are worried that being British won’t mean what it has always meant to us; that it won’t afford us the privileges we enjoy and feel entitled to. Becoming German, in this way, feels transactional, cynical even. We capitalise on what our ancestors lost: family trauma becomes cultural cachet, and we slide into the slipstream of a new breed of dual nationals that swim freely across borders. I am not sure we have earned our right to become German.

 

Becoming German is a question of inheritance

It is impossible to write about becoming German without writing about my grandmother. The stories she told my sister and I became family lore—recited over dinner and repeated in the playground.

My grandmother caught one of the last Kindertransport from Berlin to London in August 1939, aged 16. She travelled alone and had no family in the UK. At the border a doctor told her to open her mouth and she stood, jaw hanging, head tipped back, waiting to be rejected, knowing that he would find a cluster of angry red spots that made her ineligible for entry into the country. But the doctor looked her in the eye, very deliberately, and said, ‘you’re fine’.

This is a story that I love and as a little girl I would make my grandmother tell and retell—just think, almost rejected at the last border because of foot-and-mouth! But when I first recounted it in an earlier draft, my mother corrected me. Of course I misremembered my favourite story. I wonder how it appears in my sister’s piece—my sister, the collector of Easter eggs and memories.

My grandmother worked in a factory and went to night school, learning how to draw and then paint. She became an illustrator and artist, teaching at the Chelsea School of Art and illustrating children’s books whose worlds formed the landscapes of my and my sister’s childhood imaginations: Mary Belinda and the Ten Aunts and Tom’s Midnight Garden. The house in Philippa Pearce’s story is based on my grandmother’s former Berlin home and the girl, Hatty, based on my mother, Hetty.

My grandmother jived in Soho, dancing late into the night in heaving, sweaty basement clubs, her hair spilling out of its pins, her blouse stained with sweat. She fell in and out of love and had two children out of wedlock by different men, who she raised by herself. She was a working, unmarried mother, of refugee status in the fifties. She swore and went on feminist marches and had explosive arguments about literature with her son-in-law, once declaring, voice dripping with disdain, that he would never understand Beckett the way she did.

But again perhaps this is a memory borrowed? An anecdote that crystallises in its retelling. I would have been too young to know who Beckett was and I cannot remember when and where this argument took place. What stories do I have that are my own?

*

I am ten and we are visiting Berlin with my grandmother. It is the second time she has been back since she left in 1939. The first time, with my mother, was before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This second time, we are together as a family. My father has read lots of books on Berlin and as we wander the large western avenues, he points out notable features and historic sites. My grandmother grates her teeth and turns her head.

We visit her old home in Dahlem, West Berlin. It was built by her father as a present for her mother. She was twenty years his junior. Blonde, Polish and a bit of a princess, my grandma tells my sister and me, drawing the layout on a napkin in a café. Here they planted fruit trees, here was the kitchen garden, and here the lawn where she would lie for hours reading. Now the house is the Romance Languages department of the Freie Universität Berlin. A bespectacled man blinks as we explain why we are here before ushering us inside. We walk up the broad stairs, floor by floor. My grandmother pauses in a doorway. I watch her, head slightly bent but back erect. Her eyes are closed and she sighs – a long, soft breath that threatens to catch at the end. It is the door to her father’s study. The study where, if she was lucky, she would be invited to enter at the end of the day, to sit by her father and discuss what he had read, what she had read.

Later she acts like a foreign dignitary, giving a guided tour to the department professors, who trot after her with tears in their eyes.

*

After my grandmother left her heimat—‘home’—she did not speak German. So my mother, who studied Italian and French, does not speak it, and neither do my sister and I. Just as our grandmother’s former home is a foreign country, her tongue is a lost language.

But that’s not entirely true: my sister took German lessons at school and again in adulthood. She probably won’t mention it in her piece, but now that I think about it, my sister has slowly and steadily been making up for lost time, reconnecting with her roots.

As she moves closer to our shared heritage, I feel further away.

 

Becoming German is an act of sisterhood

‘I’m struggling,’ I wail to my sister during one of our daily phone calls. ‘I don’t know what it means to become German, I don’t know what the ‘narrative’ of my piece is, I don’t know anything.’

‘It’s OK bubbala,’ she soothes.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother leaving home and how it has triggered a series of movements toward it. Heimat relates to heimlich, which means ‘that which is familiar, homely’ and unheimlich, ‘that which is strange, unhomely’. In the oscillating space between the two, the Uncanny resides. In other words the sense of belonging and not belonging that characterises the ‘Uncanny’ comes from recognising something strange in the familiar and something familiar in the strange. Like revisiting one’s former home after sixty years and being overwhelmed by the ghosts that haunt it. Like acquiring a nationality that you know nothing about but which is part of your heritage. Like experiencing your thoughts as constantly pre-empted by your sister.

On hearing my sister’s voice an idea crystallises.

‘I think it’s about the uncanny, about feeling alienated from yourself and your family, while also deeply connected,’ I say.

She sighs, ‘that’s strange, so is mine. I didn’t want to tell you before because I didn’t want to influence you.’

My sister reads everything I write with care and precision. I gave her an early draft of this essay and she cried.

‘I’m a caricature. You’ve used bits of me for your own agenda.’

Initially, I dismissed her as being her usual oversensitive self, but as I wrote and rewrote, and rewrote, I realised that she was right. In writing about what it means to become German I am confronted with what it means to be a sister.

*

We are in the embassy, waiting for our number to be called at the passport office.

‘Are you making notes?’ my sister looks over my shoulder, ‘about this? About becoming German?’

‘Yes.’

She gets out her notebook and begins to write. My mother also gets her notebook out. I wonder whose notes will be best and, while I feel smug that I started the note-taking first, I am struggling for things to say. We are still scribbling when our number is called. My sister does not put her notebook away as we hurry over, so neither do I.

Beautiful woman at kiosk

            Crowd of people at passport office

            Fingerprints

I can’t see what my sister is writing but I am jealous nonetheless.

*

I am nine and sitting in a café with my grandmother and sister. Before me is a plate of eggs and chips. The chips are golden, glistening with salt and vinegar. The eggs are perfect circles. My sister is eating beans on toast, which are disgusting with the bean juice that congeals in the curve of the plate. We go to the same greasy spoon each week, before I am happily abandoned at my dance class and my sister and grandmother spend the rest of the afternoon together.

As children, my sister and I are characterised by our differences. She, thin, pale and quiet, me, round, dark and chatty. My sister gets on with my grandmother, who comes from West London every Monday to look after us until my parents return from work. She doesn’t move as much when my grandmother sketches her and she likes reading instead of watching TV. She doesn’t have tantrums.

Many of stories that are mine involve my grandmother and I fighting. I remember her scoffing, ‘stop being such a drama queen’ as I bent over the kitchen sink, having screamed so much I made myself sick.

*

My grandmother lies dying in hospital. Last week she told the doctor that she didn’t want any more medication. She did this while my mother was not there. They moved her to a private room, whereupon she closed her eyes and hasn’t spoken since. My sister has visited every day, sitting in the corner of the room and reading Proust aloud (in French). This is only my second visit and it will be the last time I see my grandmother. The first time I left early to go to a party, irritated at having to come all the way across London to the hospital. My grandmother is the colour of the beige cashmere cardigan she is wrapped in, which I will inherit and wear for years afterward, my elbows sticking through the holes I refuse to have patched.

On Christmas Day, my sister climbs into my bed, as she does every year, and holds me as I cry.

‘So Jewish of her to die on Christmas.’

*

Whether we’re eating lunch, or visiting my grandmother’s deathbed, I always think of us in relation to one another. If I competed with my sister for my grandmother’s attention, or saw her as the more favoured grandchild, this complicates my feeling of us taking on our grandmother’s nationality; it feels like a continuation of the old rivalry, of who can be closest.

From enemies to strangers to friends, our similarities are something to which we’ve had to adjust, our minds and bodies aching with newfound growing pains. Or, rather, it is perhaps more accurate to say that I have grown into my sister—same degree, same career, same piece of writing. Unsurprising, given that my sister is the first God I ever knew, both vengeful and benevolent: climbing into the cot when I was born to smother me and reaching through the chain-link fence at nursery to comfort me.

A sense of uncanniness prevails. Each time I try to pull away from her, I reliably boomerang back. I have never known a world without her in it, so everything —my memories, my likes, my self—is constituted by and against her. Every interaction is a tussle between individuation and cathexis.

Becoming German amplifies this: something we share, but something that we each own.

 

Becoming German is a stepping away 

After we have supplied our documents to the beautiful woman at the first window in the passport office, we must pay the requisite amount at a different one. Behind this sits a man whose smile stretches across his lovely face. It is cheaper if you pay in Euros, cheaper still if you pay cash. We only have our cards, and none of us has a Euro account, obviously. My mother is annoyed that we have to pay at all. I smile at the man behind the kiosk when it is my turn, as compensation for her rudeness. Afterward we sit on the plastic chairs that line the walls. My sister jumps up again to retrieve our ticket stub. Another souvenir. When she settles back down we hug, holding each other awkwardly at first, in a three-way embrace. Then I find my mother’s chest and my sister rests her head on mine and we slot into place.

It is time to leave the embassy. Outside it is no different: still grey and drizzling and windy. We march in single file on the narrow Belgravia pavement toward Hyde Park Corner. We debate where to go for lunch.

‘The thing is,’ my mother says, ‘I don’t really like German food.’

*

 My grandmother was not sentimental. She did not want to reclaim her former home, she burned the letters (with hindsight, regretfully) her father sent her during the war, and she did not lament her past—she also did not hide it.

She did, however, instil in me the importance being together. Birthdays, Easter, Christmas (the presiding religion not important). Holidays were never missed and, no matter how far, she would schlep flowers, a whole salmon, two ducks and too much luggage to be with us. The idea of ‘home’ is severed from country, from house even, and reconstructed at the site of the family.

As my grandmother said in an interview I discovered while researching:

‘“Meine Heimat” is in my heart and my head.’[1]

*

We link arms and head into the bitter winter day, my sister close to me, her hair curly, mine straight, whipped into each other by the wind.

  

Becoming German is same, same but different

My grandmother’s name was Suzanne Einzig. When she moved to the UK, she swapped her first name for its English equivalent, Susan. She did not change her last name, unlike the many other Jews who did so in order to assimilate better into British society. It is my mother’s last name and she passed it on to my sister and me. In German, einzig means unique. It now nestles, hidden but always there, between my sister’s and my first and last names—something we share, something we each own.

*

‘I’m struggling,’ my sister says to me over the phone, ‘I can’t finish my piece, I don’t know what it’s about.’

‘It’s OK schnook-ala.’

‘Can I send it to you? I’d love your help.’

My sister’s piece still sits in my inbox. I have been too afraid to read it. Too afraid of her ideas imprinting on my brain, her words filling my mouth. We’ve not written a piece together as I would have liked, but it doesn’t matter, I realise. Our pieces can sit side by side, her words alongside, against and with my own.

Just as it doesn’t matter that we eat French food after the embassy, that I can’t speak the language, or that I don’t know what it means to become German. Looking at it from different angles, as soon as one idea is illuminated the light shifts.

NOTE
[1]Einzig, Susan, ‘Refugee Voices’ from an interview conducted by Marian Malet, for the Association of Refugees, Online, AJR, 2015 https://www.ajrrefugeevoices.org.uk/RefugeeVoices/Susan-Einzig [Accessed 23 March 2020]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Madeleine Dunnigan is a writer and editor living in London. She co-founded Ladybeard magazine and is currently studying the MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths where she is the recipient of the Isaac Arthur Green Fellowship. She is working on her first novel. You can reach her at madeleinedunnigan [at] hotmail [dot] com
TW: @madeleine_i_d  IG: @madeleinedunnigan

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 30th, 2020.