John Margolis was a weightlifting coach for decades and is an accomplished master’s athlete in the sport, but even he finds it too heavy to bear Germany’s stonewalling for more than a decade.
During that time, Margolis has tried everything he could think of to obtain what he believes is his birthright: German citizenship.
He has no desire to live in Germany, but feels it is a matter of justice for his late German-born mother who survived the Holocaust. At 76, Margolis is not letting up, mainly for the sake of his two daughters and four grandchildren.
But at this stage, he is bewildered and, quite frankly, angry.
After his mother’s death in November 2005, he came across a bulging envelope addressed to him.
In her elegant handwriting, it was labeled: “Documents pertaining to possibility to claim German citizenship as descendants of German Jews.”
Margolis initially applied in 2007 through the German consulate in Montreal, and was refused.
His mother, Licel Margolis, was born in Pirmasens, Germany, in 1916. Her birth certificate was among the documents she left behind, as were the passports of her German-born parents, Lydia Sara Mayer and Moritz Israel Mayer, which were issued on Dec. 4, 1939. They bear the red “J” stamp that Jews were forced to have; the stereotypically Jewish middle names were not their own, but rather another Nazi humiliation.
The prescient Mayers sent their three children out of the country in 1933. Licel went to France, where she soon met a young Polish Jew named Emanuel Margolis. They married in 1934.
Due to her marriage to a foreigner, under German law at the time, Licel unwittingly forfeited her German citizenship forever – at least that is the answer her son got from German officials.
All German Jews later became stateless under the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws, but Germany reinstated the citizenship of those who requested it after the war.
Margolis’ mother never applied. She never even talked about it. But it is clear that in her last years, she realized its importance for her heirs, according to her son, who was born in 1942 in Toulouse, in what he emphasizes was German-occupied territory.
I’m not doing this only for myself. There must be many others in the same situation.
– John Margolis
The family’s roots in Germany are deep. Even though his grandparents left the country in 1941 for the United States, they returned numerous times, as did Licel. Margolis’ grandfather’s shoe factory is still in operation in Pirmasens, near the French border. And Margolis himself lived in Germany from 1969 to 1977, which is where he met and married his German wife.
His father served in the French army until it fell and then joined the resistance. After evading the infamous Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup of Jews in Paris in July 1942, the family fled south to Toulouse.
When Emanuel Margolis was warned by the resistance that the Nazis knew who he was, he paid Andorran smugglers to guide the family on the perilous journey across the Pyrenees to Spain. Margolis was just 18 months old; his brother eight.
They made it, but the elder Margolis was arrested by the fascist authorities and imprisoned for six months on a charge of spying.
The Margolises were among the 450 Jewish refugees who were admitted to Canada in 1944, sailing from Portugal aboard the legendary Serpa Pinto, as part of a rescue operation the Canadian Jewish Congress persuaded the federal government to undertake.
The Margolises settled in Montreal, where Emanuel Margolis worked first for Seagram’s distillery and later started his own business, only to die of a heart attack at age 45. Licel Margolis was left to support their four children on her own. After working in restaurants, she embarked on a successful late-in-life career with the federal immigration department.
Thinking about Germany’s terrible history and all the heartbreaking consequences makes me feel very sad as we Germans will have to live with the responsibility and burden forever.
– Monika Dane
Margolis has appealed his initial refusal through German diplomatic and government offices, all the way to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The end result is a collection of bureaucratic brush-offs.
The final word appears to rest with the Bundesverwaltungsamt, an agency of the Ministry of the Interior, which informed Margolis that nothing can be done for him, simply because his mother was no longer a German citizen at the time of his birth. Although that law was later rescinded, the office insists that his mother’s status remains what is was at the time.
On the advice of the New York-based Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Margolis first tried the German consulate in that city and, after being ignored there, went to Boston.
In January, he received his most recent rejection, but it is sympathetic and contains a personal apology, which is a first, he says.
Monika Dane, who is responsible for restitution matters at the Boston consulate, wrote: “I thoroughly looked over all your papers and discussed and argued with my superiors about every detail and if an exception could be made.
“Unfortunately, I do not have good news for you. The decision of the Bundesverwaltungsamt was made correctly.… I feel extremely badly that this law exists and that there is nothing that can change or deviate from it. As you can see, even Chancellor Merkel can’t make a difference.
“Thinking about Germany’s terrible history and all the heartbreaking consequences makes me feel very sad as we Germans will have to live with the responsibility and burden forever. Perhaps Wiedergutmachung (reparation) is not as all-encompassing as it was meant to be.”
Nevertheless, Margolis is not giving up. He is hoping to get the ear of Felix Klein, who in May became Germany’s first-ever anti-Semitism commissioner.
“I’m not doing this only for myself,” said Margolis. “There must be many others in the same situation.”