Otto Theodor Benfey, an 88-year-old former chemistry professor at Guilford College, sits near the head of the table in a conference room at the German Embassy in Washington, waiting for his name to be called. He has traveled hundreds of miles from his home in North Carolina to attend a naturalization ceremony and regain the German citizenship he discriminatorily lost under the Nazi regime.
When he hears his name, he rises. He receives his certificate of citizenship, and there is a moment of applause before he takes his seat. Those around him congratulate him, and he smiles.
Benfey, who also served as editor for the American Chemical Society and later for the Chemical Heritage Foundation, is one of about two-dozen Americans who claimed their German citizenship last week, celebrating their decision at a naturalization ceremony at the German Embassy. Germany's Basic Law, the German Constitution of 1949, gives Germans who were persecuted between 1933 and 1945 -- as well as their descendants -- the lawful right to citizenship. Many of those who reclaim their citizenship are Jews or of Jewish ancestry who were forced to flee Germany under the Nazi regime, and for many, choosing to reobtain German citizenship does not come easy.
“Accepting this citizenship is only possible if you have trust,” Knut Abraham, head of the Consular Department, said at the ceremony.
And Benfey, along with about a dozen others, has made the decision to place trust in Germany today.
“I learned about the Jews in Germany, the wonders of Germany, the culture and how Germany was changing and trying to change the way it treated us,” he says, recalling visits to Berlin and Göttingen. But as a child, he was a victim of Nazi discrimination.
In 1935, Benfey's father was fired from his position as a supreme court judge in Berlin, and consequently lost much of his wealth. Although the Benfey family was Lutheran, they were considered Jews by the Nazis because of their family roots. In 1936, Benfey's father decided to send his 10-year-old son to England, where he would live with family friends and continue his education. But on the last day of school, word got out that Benfey was leaving -- and he was harassed by a mob of classmates on his way home.
“People spread the word that I wasn't coming back because I was Jewish. I was only Jewish by Nazi law,” Benfey says. “So this gang of kids between 10 and 12 followed me home, shouting 'JUDE, JUDE'. But this one boy - a friend of mine - stayed with me and walked with me all the way to the apartment and upstairs.”
When this young boy was about to leave the apartment, however, he saw that he would be attacked by the mob for standing beside Benfey.
“They would have beaten him up. We called his father, who came and collected him,” Benfey recalls. And that was the last he heard of his friend. Shortly thereafter, Benfey moved to England. His family escaped from Germany several years later, and Benfey eventually settled in the United States.
Decades later, when Benfey was living in North Carolina, he received an e-mail from the classmate who had walked him home, Hans-Jürgen Peiper. Peiper, 88, had studied medicine and became a surgeon in Göttingen - the city where Benfey's Jewish great grand-uncle -- a well-known scholar -- had lived. While walking through town one day, Peiper saw a street sign labeled “Benfeyweg”, and he wondered whether there was any connection to his childhood friend.
Peiper's half-Jewish surgery assistant became determined to find Benfey. She contacted a friend of hers at Google in Tel Aviv, who found that Benfey had taught chemistry at Guilford College.
“So she looked on the list of scientists and found the most Jewish name and sent the man an e-mail saying, 'have you ever heard of Theodor Benfey?' And an e-mail came back saying, 'sure, he lives across the street from me!'” Benfey recalls.
Benfey and Peiper reconnected, and 77 years after that walk home from school, Benfey visited his childhood friend in Germany, bringing three of his sons and two grandsons with him.
“So Hans-Jürgen got six Benfeys. It was wonderful,” he says of the reunion.
With his certificate before him, Benfey recalls his recent trips to Berlin, Göttingen and Vienna. With his son and daughter-in-law by his side, he ponders the opportunities his reinstated citizenship could provide for his family members: “For my children and grandchildren, all of whom love to travel and to learn about other cultures, to have German and EU citizenship is a wonderful gift I can give them.”
This interview was conducted by Nicole Glass.