Escape Hatch

Shoes on the Danube, a Holocaust Memorial in Budapest

I’m married to an Austrian. Thanks to that alliance, I have residency in Austria. It’s not permanent, it has to be renewed every five years — down from ten, originally — but it’s still valid. The Austrians don’t allow dual citizenship, you must give up citizenship in the country of your birth to gain theirs, so I’ve never considered applying.

I don’t want to give up my right to live in the US, though I have doubts about how the “no dual citizenship” rule is enforced by the Austrians. I’m not sure there’s anything to stop me swearing myself in as an Austrian citizen one day and heading to the American embassy the next to report that my passport has gone missing. Or to prevent me from traveling back into the US on an Austrian passport then, just going about my American life. “Changed my mind,” I might say and send a check for whatever it costs to get a new passport. A scofflaw could hold an Austrian passport in one hand and an American passport in the other, the risk of losing either seems low. A friend’s mom once told me she refused to hand over her New Zealand passport upon receiving US citizen ship because “It says right there it’s the property of the Kiwi government. It’s not mine to give up.” Flustered by this woman’s chutzpah, the Americans let her keep it.

Bureaucratic complications aside, my Austrian residency permit is a handy escape hatch. I’m asked, with increasing frequency, if I plan on using it, when I plan on using it. I hope it won’t be necessary.  Austria was hard — I had no true friends outside the husband’s family, there was no work for me in the region where we lived, I was an invisible minority (Jewish) with no local community, and sometimes, I was blindsided with hopeless cravings for tom kha gai, that Thai chicken soup with lime and coconut. The country isn’t free from racists, that’s for sure. Once, I heard remarks against the Croats and Serbs — who I could not distinguish from the local Austrians. Once, I saw a swastika scrawled in the lobby of a stairwell at a clinic, it had not been painted over. Once, at guest house, an local guy made a dig against Chinese immigrants to Australia and I said, “We have to go home now,” and we did. I deeply regret not calling bullshit immediately; I have become more outspoken over time.

The most personal affront I received was to be told it’s “cool” that I’m Jewish, as though it’s something thing I’ve done like going to art school or picking up the ukulele, not some inherent part of my cultural makeup that goes back  generations. See also, I had my DNA tested recently, and I’m Ashkenazi as fuck. It’s not like getting a tattoo or working for NASA, it’s just something I am.  I’ve never known how to respond to that. Uh, thanks? I’ve also been told I’m not “that kind of immigrant,” to which I have repeatedly answered, “As opposed to what kind?”

We’re naive if we think we can just skip off to France (where there are attempts to ban the burkini). Ireland (where women do not have the right to choose). Britain (where Brexit is based in xenophobia, much like our own wall building mania). Or Germany, okay, Germany seems to have its shit together lately, go figure. They do lack a respectable coast and no, the Baltic and North Seas do not count. Plus I hear Berlin is just filthy with Americans, and if I want those, I can live here in Seattle.

Sure, Europe has nationalized health care, but it’s not some socialized utopia where the issues that plague American society are all resolved. My escape hatch opens to a land where issues mirror with those in the US. Perhaps not as intensely today as they have been in the past, but they are very much present.

My daily existence is still an abundance of choice, of options, of possibilities. I can choose Thai food and the Pacific Ocean (in the form of Puget Sound) and a community of people that get me, those to whom my religion at birth is not a novelty. I can go to the mall and be swept up in the diversity of the crowd, a regular United Nations of humanity, all there to see Wonder Woman, eat conveyor belt sushi,  and wonder if those mounted shoe racks at the container store will solve the problem of the hall closet. I don’t want to give that up. And I’m wallowing in privilege that does not require I give it up to survive.

Nazis and the KKK marched in Charlottesville a few days ago. This isn’t hyperbole, they carried the flags. One woman was killed when a white terrorist drove his car into the counter-protestors. (Sources don’t identify his religion, I wish they would.) A few weeks back, the plaque outside the Bryant General Store, commemorating the murder of Emmet Till, was vandalized, as though it’s possible to paint over the fact of a black teenager murdered for being a black teenager — a story all too familiar in today’s America. Yesterday, the Holocaust memorial in Boston was vandalized, the glass broken, an ugly metaphor if ever there was one. Though it seems unlikely the vandal knows anything of the Night of Breaking Glass.

My residency permit looks like a driver’s license; it has a photo and numbers and a big word in German that means “residency permit.” It can’t happen here, I tell myself, even while I see photos of Nazis and the Klan marching in the streets of Charlottesville, while I see broken glass. It took nearly three days for the President to condemn the march and the murder, three days, and we all suspect he was winking at his followers as he read the statement, “It’s just the job, guys, pull the truck around, I’ll meet you out back later.” It’s easy for me to flee. I have everything in place.

I’d hadn’t spent much time feeling the bitter history of European Jewry until I lived in Austria. I was on the train, I think it was to Munich, I think it was early spring. We were crossing the lower edge of some forested slopes, the trees were black against a gray sky, there were patches of snow on the ground. I thought, “They must have been so cold.” There were ghosts between the trees, women dressed in the wrong shoes, men carrying what valuables they’d been able to save, they trudged through the slush trying to get somewhere, anywhere safe where they would not be murdered merely for having the same DNA in their bones that I have.

Just a few months before they’d been sorting the shoes in the hall closet.

Shoes, Auschwitz via Yad Vashem image archives

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