Samuel and Joel Rothmann don’t understand German. But the brothers do understand what Germany means to their family.
Germany was the birthplace of their grandfather, Hans Rothmann, a Jew exiled by Hitler in 1936. It was the homeland of their great-grandfather, Max Rothmann, the Kaiser’s personal physician during World War I.
And so, on a sparkling summer day in San Francisco, the Rothmann brothers set out to heal an old wound. The two swore an oath of allegiance, signed the papers and became citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The ceremony took place in the San Francisco office of German Consul General Stefan Schlüter on Aug. 5, the 117th birthday of Hans Rothmann.
“We never met him,” said Joel, 18, “so this made us feel close to him. We can’t forget the past, but this is a positive as we go forward.”
“The circle was closed when he left Germany in the ’30s,” added Samuel, 23. “We’ve come full circle to regain what he lost.”
Looking on were the brothers’ parents, Ellen Tuchman Rothmann and talk radio host John Rothmann, who could barely contain his emotions during the ceremony.
He said the genesis of his sons’ repatriation to Germany traces back to a 2013 family trip to Germany. That visit included the family saying Kaddish at the grave of Max Rothmann and attending a commemoration at Halle-Wittenberg University in Berlin in honor of 43 Jewish professors fired in 1933 under Nazi law.
One of those professors was Hans Rothmann. Though his father Max was a friend of the Kaiser, and he himself was a German war veteran, the rise of Hitler meant persecution, exile and loss of citizenship. Hans made his way to California, married and started a family, but the painful past never left him.
“My father spent half his life in Germany,” John Rothmann said. “It was wrenching for him to go through [exile]. He never talked about it. I pieced it together after he died.”
Some of those pieces include artifacts from a long-lost era: Max Rothmann’s medical bag from the Franco-Prussian War, military medals from the Kaiser, two volumes of memoirs. Many of those items, preserved by the Rothmann family, have since been returned to Germany.
During the 2013 visit, a professor at Halle-Wittenberg suggested Samuel and Joel consider applying for German citizenship, something that many Jews removed from the war years by a generation or two have done.
That was all the prodding they needed, though bureaucracy slowed the process. German authorities felt Samuel and Joel did not qualify for citizenship because their grandfather had become a naturalized American in 1940.
German President Joachim Gauck interceded after an August 2015 letter from John Rothmann recounted the family’s history in Germany, concluding with, “How is it possible that my children are being denied their right to claim what was taken from their grandfather?”
Joel and Samuel, who is also a citizen of Israel, having served two years with the Israel Defense Forces, will retain their U.S. citizenship.
For now, neither is ready to catch the next flight to Berlin. Joel plans on earning a real estate license and attending California State University at Chico next semester. Samuel, newly returned from Israel, plans on finding work and traveling in the near term.
Both know the advantages of a German passport, including easy travel throughout the European Union, and that citizenship allows them to take advantage of Germany’s tuition-free universities.
But beyond the practicalities, all who witnessed the ceremony were happy to close a bitter chapter in the family’s history.
“This is a final rebuke of Hitler,” Schlüter said.