How to be a citizen of everywhere
Episode 19: Peter Gumbel, a British man with German Jewish roots, searches for his identity in the wake of Brexit
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This week on Borderline
Ernst and Carla Frank were classic German upper class. Their thriving textile factory afforded them a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle in the town centre and provided stable employment to many. They were trusted philanthropists and fixtures of the Protestant church they had converted to years ago. Ernst and Carla were German, they’d tell you. They were Jewish, the state retorted.
Peter Gumbel, their grandson, is an Englishman. When all four of his grandparents narrowly escaped the Third Reich and found refuge in Great Britain, they cast off their German Jewish heritage to become a quintessential British family. Cricket, Marmite and Church of England. The madness that displaced his family couldn’t happen again; Peter grew up on a peaceful and interdependent continent, one he’d made his home as a foreign correspondent. He was British but he was European too, he’d tell you. He couldn’t be, a referendum decided.
The story of Peter Gumbel’s family is the story of Europe. Twice in three generations, events out of their control wrecked their identities. They didn’t really belong, they were told. They weren’t who they thought they were. In the wake of Brexit, Gumbel reached out to Germany again in pursuit of a new passport – and a reckoning with history.
Here is an excerpted, condensed version of our conversation. For the full story, listen to the podcast (on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other platforms) or read the transcript.
Isa: Tell me about your family and who they were.
I was born in England and until 2016, if you'd asked me who I am, I would have said I'm British. But I didn't come from 15 generations of Brits dating back to Magna Carta. I come from a family of refugees. My grandparents fled Nazi Germany and got out just in time in 1939.
They were proud to be German. Then the Nazis came along and basically said, "Hey, you're not German. You're Jewish." So suddenly their identity was very challenged. My grandfather was arrested on Kristallnacht and amazingly managed to get out of jail after 10 days. They fled to England where they arrived as stateless refugees because the Nazis stripped them of their German citizenship. Then as soon as the war ended, they became naturalized British citizens.
They absolutely loved Britain and they were eternally grateful to Britain for being the country of their salvation. So I grew up in a household that completely adopted and assimilated into British life. We only spoke English at home. My friends look at me as being this sort of quintessentially English person.
How did Brexit change that?
I feel my identity is very much partly British because I grew up there, but also very European because I grew up in a household that was very interested in the rest of the world. I've lived in Denmark, in Belgium, in Germany and now in France since 2002. With Brexit I had to choose, or I felt I had to choose, and that put me in a really uncomfortable position. I felt almost like I was being orphaned. I couldn't be both.
So that's when I took the decision to find another passport, a European nationality. Because my grandparents and my parents were stripped of their German nationality, under the post-war German constitution I was eligible to have a German passport. It set me on a real journey to think about who my parents and my grandparents were, where they came from, how that affects me.
I have my British identity from a national point of view, but I also have my German heritage and my European convictions. In that sense, my own self perception is of something bigger than just one country. I'm not just British. I'm more than that.
You could have asked for French papers and you would have got them. Why then go for a German passport rather than papers from the country you live in?
The key point for me was this was a time to come to terms with my German Jewish heritage. My grandparents and parents completely cast off both their Germanness and any vestiges of Jewishness. And they cast it off to the point where it was something that we never talked about when we were growing up in Britain.
What happened with me after the referendum was this sense of, "Now's the time to really think about Germany, 80 years after my grandparents fled." The conclusion I came to was that Germany has completely changed. I feel very comfortable with the idea of being a German citizen.
So you reconnected with your German identity. What about your Jewish identity?
Interestingly enough, this was the biggest taboo of all. I think my grandparents and my parents were so terrorized by their experience during the Nazi period, and they didn't really feel themselves as being Jewish. But of course, for the Nazis, they were Jewish and so they were persecuted as a result.
If you look at the literature on second generation Holocaust survivors, there are certain aspects that keep recurring. One is a sense of shame and guilt, very much a lack of communication and a ghastly silence where there should be answers. That Jewish aspect of our family history was something that was completely taboo. It was difficult enough to talk about Germany and impossible to talk about being Jewish.
There were no vestiges of even the Jewish culture and tradition in my upbringing. However, I do have a brother who has married a Jewish woman and is bringing up their child in the Jewish faith. He feels Jewish and I don't, and we're brothers. Everybody has a different reaction to their own family history when you've been in a family which has been through such turbulent times.
As you've reconciled with your German identity, your British identity got a bit more complicated. How do you relate to Britain today?
I personally feel aggrieved by Brexit in a way that quite surprises me. The way that immigration and xenophobia were front and center during the campaign is something that I found extremely worrying and concerning.
If you wanted to crystallize it, the one thing that really, really annoyed me more than anything else was the famous Theresa May speech at the Conservative party congress in 2016, when she comes out and says, "If you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere." There is a very nasty echo. If you go back to the 1930s, the “Wandering Jew” not settling anywhere and being a troublemaker and not belonging... It was an absolute staple of Nazi propaganda.
As the grandchild and child of people who had been stateless refugees from the Nazis, I couldn't help hearing that very nasty attack being repeated – in a less virulent form, but nonetheless the same intention to say that you don't belong. And that still makes my blood boil. I can understand that people feel aggrieved, but I can't understand that you castigate everybody who doesn't think the way you do as being a citizen of nowhere.
The madness that drove your family out of Germany all those years ago, is that something that you can envision repeating itself in Europe, in Britain?
What has been really frightening has been to see how quickly institutions that we thought of as being fundamentally democratic and open have been overturned or have been altered. We're not seeing Weimar Britain. But the tendencies are there – this very extreme populism, the rabble-rousing against immigrants, the disrespect of democratic institutions and traditions, and the closing of doors, all of that makes me frightened.
So what I say in the book is, “my children, you need to carry the flame of freedom, of openness, of liberal democracy.” It's incredibly important. Don't take it for granted because what we've seen in the last three or four years on both sides of the Atlantic are the same sort of terrible tendencies that ultimately led to the fate of my family in Nazi Germany.
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📚 Citizens of Everywhere: Searching for Identity in the Age of Brexit, by Peter Gumbel. Haus Publishing, London, 2020.
👀 Read a full transcript of the episode and timed shownotes on borderlinepod.com.
We’re going live (here)!
I’ll now convene live events every Thursday, usually on LinkedIn Live, to expand the conversation and get to hear from you.
For this first session, I want to talk about the people largely ignored when governments decide to close borders or restrict travel – multinational families. We'll look at lessons from Australia's strict closure and the questions we should ask about the UK's new hotel quarantine system.
Are you an expat cut off from family abroad? Is your partner across the border and your relationship on hold? Were you barred from attempting even emergency travel?
Hit reply or leave a comment to share your story and join the live on LinkedIn or on Youtube, Thursday Feb 18 at 5pm GMT (9 am PT, noon ET). See you then!
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