(October 7, 2020 / JNS) At some point during the video conference call, Scott Morse of Ashburn, Va., whipped out a faux Austrian-European Union license plate that read: DUAL CTZN. He bought the novelty item off eBay, proud that he and his extended family were able to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs: Austrian citizenship.
“That whole history of our family was ripped apart and taken, and now this is a way for Austria to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and this was our way, maybe, not to forgive but to carry on,” said Scott, 48, in the video call with his brother Craig Morse, 51, and cousin Robert Schwarz, 64.
In September 2019, the Austrian parliament amended the Austrian Citizenship Act to enable descendants of victims of Nazi oppression to acquire Austrian citizenship. It went into effect on Sept. 1, though the Morse brothers had looked into the process of Austrian citizenship long before then.
About a year-and-half ago, they started the Facebook group, “Austrian Citizenship Holocaust Descendants.” Since last month, membership spiked to about 400 members, drawing 12 to 15 new members a day from all over the globe, including the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom and South America.
“There are a section of members in the group who are in the U.K., and for some of them, it’s a Brexit issue,” said Craig from his Virginia home. “It’s an opportunity because of Brexit. There are those who talk about the fact that they want to have an option to live some place else based on, unfortunately, what’s going on here. And for others, it’s just the same thing: They want to grab on to a piece of the family that was taken away.”
Contrast the experience to that of their cousin, Robert. He applied for Austrian citizenship three years ago—a process that took almost four years due to the grueling means of tracking down documentation. But for the Morses, it took just a few weeks with COVID-19 limitations providing the only bureaucratic hurdles. They are now waiting for notification of approval.
When Schwarz had applied, he could claim citizenship only through his father, a survivor of four concentration camps; the new law allows potential citizens to claim citizenship by both patrilineal and matrilineal descent, and also to skip a generation rather than prove a genealogical chain. The Morses claimed citizenship directly through their grandparents.
Craig described the Austrian embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was the first claimant, as “nothing but helpful.”
“You’re not applying for citizenship; you’re declaring citizenship. And you show proof,” he said.
Similarly, in Israel, the Austrian embassy has increased staff to handle the demand and fast-track the process.
“We are proud to note that the procedure granting citizenship has never before been so easy and ‘user-friendly,’ ” said Austria’s Ambassador to Israel Hanna Liko in an e-mail interview with JNS. Claimants simply fill out an online questionnaire. Austrian authorities help them track down the documents if they don’t have them, barring the need for immigration lawyers, who can charge up to 6,000 euro (about $7,000) for an application. This arguably makes it one of the most accessible European citizenships for Holocaust descendants, which often require third-party assistance or long processing times for the claimants.
“As of late September, 1,900 people filled in the questionnaire via the Austrian embassy’s Israeli website, and approximately 70 people submitted the documents and declarations,” said Liko. “I am pleased that so many are interested; it’s not obvious given the suffering of their ancestors in Austria due to Nazi persecution.”
‘Repair relationships and face the past’
Samuel Laster, editor of Austria’s online Jewish newspaper, Atar HaYehudi (Die Juedische) and a Jewish community organizer, thinks the move represents a turning point for Austria-Jewish relations.
“It’s an important sign from the Austrian perspective,” he said. “It was created at a time when there was a lot of criticism in Austria for having a coalition with Strache’s party.” Heinz-Christian Strache had been the leader of the controversial right-wing Freedom Party before he was forced to resign following a corruption scandal.
The amendment, according to Laster, was made, in part, to remove any doubts about anti-Semitism in the Austrian government.
“[Chancellor] Sebastian Kurz is one of the most pro-Israel leaders that Europe has ever seen,” he said.
The Morse family proudly watched the vote being passed in the Austrian parliament.
“We streamed it, and what was impressive—and what meant a lot to people—was that the vote was unanimous,” said Craig. “There was no dissent in Parliament. I think part of that is the current chancellor wanted to repair relationships and to face the past.”
Laster believes that Austrian federal states are looking forward to having newly minted citizens enrich Jewish life in Austria, even to the extent of providing career and educational guidance to new Jewish residents.
“It’s a historic opportunity for Jews outside of Austria to join the community that now stands at 8,000 to 10,000,” she said. “Vienna is the largest, but you have communities in Innsbruck, Graz, Linz and Salzburg that can’t always get a minyan [prayer quorum] on holidays.”
Liko says the move represents a high point in Israel-Austrian relations specifically.
“The relations between Israel and Austria have never been better—perhaps that’s also some kind of motivation for the one or the other Israeli to acquire Austrian citizenship,” she said. “And, of course, I hope that one side effect will be even more people-to-people contacts (after the COVID-19 crisis) between Israel and Austria, which is an important foundation for friendly relations between countries.”
The Morse clan is gearing up for people-to-people contact on the American side. They’re planning a major family trip to Austria with cousins from across the generations when feasible.
Said Scott: “We’re going to meet in Austria at the same time, and go to customs and clear the E.U. at the same time, and hand them 20 Austrian passports.”
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