Nazis took his citizenship as a child, today it will be restored

Fred Amram will be re-naturalized by the German consul general during a ceremony Tuesday at the Germanic-American Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota.

By RYAN FAIRCLOTH/PIONEER PRESS
September 25, 2018 12:05
Star of David

a holocaust survivor wears a yellow Star of David on his jacket during a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Fred Amram faced horrors growing up as a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany.

He witnessed the national wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks known as Kristallnacht and the Gestapo raiding his home; he watched British bombers from his balcony, when Jews were banned from air raid shelters; he saw his father forced into slave labor; and he lost extended family members in the ghettos and concentration camps.

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Eight decades later, Amram — now 85 and living in Minneapolis — intends to renew ties to his motherland by reclaiming his once-stripped German citizenship. He will be re-naturalized by the German consul general during a ceremony Tuesday at the Germanic-American Institute in St. Paul.

The re-naturalization will mark the latest chapter in the life of Amram, who climbed from the depths of Nazi Germany to become a University of Minnesota professor, inventor and published author.

“I’m not sure yet how I will feel about (the re-naturalization). I think it may hurt a little bit,” Amram said. “I’m thinking of it in terms of the world, and that this is an opportunity for people to … talk about the refugee situation in the modern world, and to think about genocide. This is a 21st century opportunity for folks … to think about the Holocaust.”

Amram was stripped of his citizenship before he even knew what it meant to be German.

He was 2 when the Nazi Party passed the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, which deprived Jews of their citizenship and prohibited them from marrying or having sexual relations with Germans.

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Amram and his parents would endure four more years of anti-Semitism, air raids and repeated Gestapo searches before fleeing their home in Hanover in November 1939. They eventually settled in New York City and were granted American citizenship.

“We escaped with nothing, literally,” Amram said.

The Holocaust would last until 1945, killing an estimated 6 million Jews in what is widely considered the worst genocide in history.

Germany began offering re-naturalization in 1949 to those who were deprived of their citizenship on “political, racial or religious grounds” between 1933 and 1945. The opportunity for reclaimed citizenship also extends to the descendants of persecuted Jews.

Amram would not find out about the re-naturalization process until he read about it in 2016.

The number of U.S. Jews applying to reclaim their German citizenship had spiked that fall, with applications rising from 70 in September to 144 in December. Several Jews cited the election of President Donald Trump as their motivation to re-naturalize.

Amram debated whether to partake in the process with a group of Holocaust survivors whom he meets with in St. Paul. The verdict was split, he said, with half of the members saying he should have nothing to do with Germany and the other half telling him that re-naturalization was “an opportunity to build bridges again.”

He favored the latter for personal and academic reasons; his two children and two grandchildren could also become German citizens, and he could use the occasion to draw attention to the plight of refugees.

“I’m excited about the concept that the German government is finding ways to say, ‘We’re sorry,’ ” he said. “On the other hand, I’m very sad when I think about all of the other people in the world, the other children in the world … who have no citizenship, who are refugees.”

Those who know Amram say they aren’t surprised he is embracing his German heritage despite the horrors he witnessed in the country as a child.

“He’s moved beyond what happened but it will always be a part of him. It’s like woven into his character but at the same time, he’s … so excited about this,” said Mary Young, a 66-year-old Wyoming, Minn., resident who’s remained friends with Amram since she took a creativity class he taught at the University of Minnesota in 1982.

Amram moved from New York City to Minneapolis for graduate school after completing an undergraduate degree at Syracuse University. The University of Minnesota offered Amram a job teaching communication and creativity after he completed his graduate degree there.

During his academic tenure, he researched robotics and women inventors and directed the school’s Higher Education for Low Income People (HELP) Center, which served under-represented students.

“I had been committed to works that help people who don’t have equal opportunity, probably at least in part … because of my own growing up as an outsider,” Amram said.

After retiring from the university in 2001, Amram tinkered with inventing. He created a backpack with removable and repositionable straps to ease discomfort for students who insisted on wearing their backpacks on one shoulder.

But Amram has spent most of his time in retirement addressing his history as a Holocaust survivor. He’s given lectures about genocide to college students, military members and government agencies, and published a memoir titled “We’re in America Now: A Survivor’s Stories,” which details his upbringing in Germany and in America.

Mary Jane LaVigne, a 58-year-old White Bear Lake resident, met Amram around 2010 when the two attended a creative nonfiction writing workshop.

LaVigne came to appreciate Amram’s “useful approach” and “willingness to explore the world,” which she says are reflective of someone who continues to stay engaged.

“Fred has always been someone that has not just taken his time in the world and kept it frozen in amber. He’s always addressing the moment in time, and I feel like in some ways this discussion that we’re in right now politically about immigration and citizenship is part of why he’s (restoring his citizenship),” she said.

To Amram, the refugee crisis of today bears a striking resemblance to what Jews faced during the Holocaust.

A record 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes because of persecution, violence or human rights violations, according to data from the UN Refugee Agency. Ten million of those individuals are considered “stateless,” meaning they have been denied citizenship and access to health care, education and employment.

“The problem (for Jews) was not … deciding to get out. The problem was finding a place to go,” Amram said. “If folks could have left Germany earlier, Jews would have left by the millions.”

At his re-naturalization ceremony Tuesday, Amram will discuss refugees and the issue of statelessness alongside Ellen Kennedy, executive director of the World Without Genocide group at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Kennedy and Amram, who serves on World Without Genocide’s board of directors, have led public presentations together on the Holocaust and other injustices.

“(Amram) really is … what we call an upstander in trying to leave behind a legacy of justice,” Kennedy said. “But had it not been for someone who was able to bring him and his parents here, he was stateless and would have lost his life as well.”

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