Here we are, my brother and me. Staggering down the very long hall to our respective bedrooms. It’s almost two in the morning.
Every page of the Ebel Archive has been scanned. Two portfolios have been assembled: one with official documentation, the other with personal correspondence, presented chronologically. David and I have discussed talking points, in case the German Vice Consul is a meanie and we are forced to defend our position and intentions. I have a whole spiel cooked up about the long chain of German heritage that the Nazis broke, and how we seek to repair that chain and look forward to a promising future with our German brethren, or something. We agree on a To Do list for the morning and an 8 AM wake-up call. I set my own alarm for 7:30.
Here we are again, six hours later.
Caffeinated and scurrying around, because it takes time for 140 years of German-Jewish paper-trail to churn from the color printer, because for a moment there is not enough paper or color ink in the printer, because David realizes he doesn’t have a stapler and the one he nicks from his roommate’s bedroom runs out of staples, because I smack into the printer with my hip and knock the tray off and can’t get it snapped back in, because David want my opinion on what shirt works best (“The black dress shirt with the purple stripe,” I say. “It looks like you already live in Berlin.”), because now we have to swing past Office Max for a stapler and a folder en route to the German consulate. Because we are determined to be prompt, with the idea that promptness will make us seem more German.
I’m wearing white jeans, strappy patent leather sandals with a Cuban heel, and a thin grey merino wool sweater, since you asked.
Here we are, dashing into Office Max. “I think we should split up,” David says. “You have the vision for the folder,” I recommend, “so I’ll focus on the stapler.” I am snapping photos as we hurry down separate aisles.
“How are you today?” the cute Office Max cashier says, flashing her dimples at David.
“David,” he replies. She laughs. I can objectively observe that David is cute, charming and well dressed, yet I am stunned by the magnitude of his chick-magneticity. He turns to me. “Shit. You better do all the talking,” he deadpans. “I’m just going to be sitting there in front of the guy, and when he asks us why we think we deserve German citizenship, all I’m going to be able to come up with is ‘David,’ and that’s no good.”
The top on the Beemer’s down, because I’m stapling documents and loving the dope white plastic folder David selected as David dodges daredevil bike messengers.
The German Consulate is a gorgeous brick building, set back on a tony residential street behind an ornate gate, flanked by flower beds and a big fountain, and we slide effortlessly into the rock star parking spot expressly chosen for us by the Jewish God. David’s convertible looks particularly fetching in front of this Russian Hill mansion. “Oh, look!” I say. “It’s the Ebel Schloss! How nice of the Germans to let us have it back!” The older Malaysian gentleman in the security uniform peers at us through the gate. He wants to know if he can help us. “We have an 11:30 appointment with Vice Consul Vogelbacher,” I explain. The gate opens.
In the sunny lobby, the blonde receptionist of a certain age with sophisticated glasses frames requests our ID’s. We have a seat in a conference room with a view of the fountain and gardens. Ten minutes later, Vice Consul Thomas Vogelbacher hurries in.
Vogelbacher looks like Leo DiCaprio, but younger. His burgundy-striped tie matches his burgundy dress shirt. David and I rise to greet him, and, with a casual flourish, Thomas Vogelbacher makes a chivalrous point of shaking mine first. We are seated. Vogelbacher beams at us, apologizes for sounding congested, although he has a really terrific complexion and a respectable base tan, and seems like the sort who pursues rigorous Bay Area sport on the weekends. He asks who in our family is the displaced German citizen through whom we hope to have our citizenship restored. David and I look at one another.
“Well,” David says. “We’re here basically because our father, Henry Ebel, left Germany in 1938 with his parents, our grandparents. They were fleeing the Nazis.”
“Yes, of course,” says Vogelbacher, nodding sympathetically.
“But our grandparents kept records of our family that date back to 1866,” David continues, “so there’s a long bloodline of Ebels we can present.”
“Ah,” says Vogelbacher.
I indicate our groovy plastic folder. “We’ve made you a full set of color copies, but we’ve brought the originals to show you.”
“Yes, this is necessary. We will submit copies but I must confirm their authenticity by looking at the originals.”
David pushes the black portfolio over to Vogelbacher and opens the cover. Vogelbacher blinks. The first item is the Ebel ‘Hamilien Stammbauch.’
“This is very, very old,” Thomas Vogelbacher says softly, leaning forward in his chair. It’s a Jewish Diasporic Antiques Roadshow moment.
Vogelbacher tenderly drinks in each page of our portfolio like a delighted grandfather scanning baby pictures. He can’t believe what we have. And how both rare and perfectly preserved our documents are. He’s gratifyingly amazed and moved by our grandparents’ Third Reich passports, by the Holland-America passenger list on which the Ebels appear in Tourist Class, by the frenzy of 1938 correspondence between our grandfather, Richard Ebel, and the Polish consulate, as Richard tried to get our grandmother Anna’s German citizenship confirmed before she is expelled to Poland along with her parents, the Salomons, and her brother Hermann, who are murdered in 1942 when their Polish hiding place is revealed by a Jewish Nazi sympathizer, by our grandmother’s “Arbeitsbuch,” essentially her resume in book form, issued by the Nazis. Overcome with deference, Vogelbacher doesn’t even want to touch our grandfather’s 1932 driver’s license, and he nearly topples over when he sees that we have the original naturalization papers that were issued to our family in New York over a few years in the mid-1940’s. “How did you get these?” he exclaims. “It is very unusual to have such a thing, and for most of my customers, a giant hassle to secure copies that can take more than a year.”
I like that Vogelbacher uses the word ‘hassle.’ It occurs to me that at some point I will have to learn German, and that my German will never be as good as Vogelbacher’s English. And it’s funny that he refers to us as his ‘customers.’ But it seems that among the three of us, we are each buying what the other is selling. The phrase ‘unabashed love fest’ comes to mind.
Vogelbacher tells us that the restoration of our German citizenship is not just a credential that will likely be conferred to us on the basis of human rights, but that it is a legal matter, guaranteed to us constitutionally.
He points out that once we have our German citizenship, and once my son Clyde becomes a dual German citizen, too, John and I should consider looking to the EU for educational opportunities. “You will have many choices in the EU for your son’s education,” he points out. “And your tuition will be a fraction of what it would be for international students, and perhaps a better deal than what is available to you in the United States.”
I hadn’t thought of that angle.
I try out my “long chain of heritage broken by the Nazi’s now healed by the triumphant return of Kathy and David Ebel” spiel. Vogelbacher cocks his head thoughtfully. “I fear you might have a misconception, this idea of the long chain,” he responds. “Actually, the history of anti-Semitism in Germany is long and troubled. Many, many times that chain has been broken. Of course the Third Reich is the sickest, most disturbed chapter. But the Jews have endured rejection and prejudice throughout the history of Germany.” He fires off several key dates spanning two centuries of Jewish persecution. He suggests films we should see. (He favors The Fall, while The Pianist made him shudder.) Thomas Vogelbacher should totally be made an honorary Jew. I would personally love to host a post-bar mitzvah brunch for him in my Berlin rooftop garden.
Is there Jewish Fever in Germany? You know, like Jungle Fever, but thoughtful German guys who have wood for Jewish Girls?
Thomas Vogelbacher asks if we would be interested in a tour of Berlin provided just for returning citizens like us. Do we have cousins or other relatives who might also like to become German? ‘Cause that’s totally happening if we’re feeling it. What about family members of the “victim generation?” Any of those still around? Because Germany will provide one of us a free plane ticket to return to Berlin with any surviving elder statesmen. Would we like to connect with the rabbi of Berlin’s new synagogue? He’s a great guy and his wife is well connected. Vogelbacher jokes that he hopes too see us in Berlin for Christmas, since the consulate throws a great party. “Once you have your citizenship,” he says, “I can make many suggestions of resources that you might find interesting.”
Umm…yeah. You could say we’re interested.
“So…do you think we have a compelling presentation?” I ask.
Vogelbacher looks at me for a beat, then smiles benevolently. “Many of my customers have no idea what has happened. They do not even remember their father’s name,” he says. “I can make no promises, but I expect you will have your citizenship restored in the next three months. And you know,” he continues, turning his attention to me, “once your paperwork is assembled you can have it approved in Los Angeles at the consulate there, to save you a trip.”
“I know. But I think I might want to come back here with my son.”
“It will be an excuse for another visit,” my brother David says, smiling at me. I kind of have a little crush on my brother right now.
It bears repeating: Thomas Vogelbacher can make no promises.
I have to ask for help to find the ladies room, even though I have followed the blonde receptionist’s directions. That’s because the bathroom door is camouflaged by wood paneling so that it disappears against the wall, giving it the distinct feel of a hiding space in a peasant’s cottage. I duck inside and see the two large circles of perspiration that have bloomed on my formerly pristine sweater.
David and I get back into the car and lower the top.
“Oh. My. God,” I say.
“Wait,” says David.
“What, you think they’re watching us?”
David stares straight ahead as he pulls out of our rock star parking spot.
“Okay,” he says, as we rocket up the street. “Now we can freak out.”