Jun 2005 Journal

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My country

When I left Germany I was full of hate for the country. I was furious when people described me as 'German' and would explain: 'I am a Jewish refugee from Germany.' When I appeared before a tribunal in 1939 to establish my status, the magistrate asked me: 'Do you want to be repatriated after the war?' I replied: 'Definitely not.' So my alien's registration book contained the footnote 'Does not wish to be repatriated.' When in 1947 I applied for naturalisation I put 'stateless' as my nationality. The Home Office wrote to me: 'According to our records, you are German. Why did you write stateless?' I replied: 'I am a Jew and therefore cannot be German.' The Home Office accepted this and I became British.

I did not teach my children German - for which they later criticised me. When in 1954 I applied for a job teaching history the headmaster asked if I would teach German instead. I accepted because I wanted so much to teach in a selective school. Soon I realised that if one teaches a language one must have empathy for the country whose language it is and this I did not have. So I read about recent history and concluded that one must differentiate between Nazis, non-Nazis and anti-Nazis. This satisfied me for the time being.

About ten years ago the German government offered a pension to former German Jews provided they re-applied for their German nationality. Some of my friends preferred to go without their pension rather than become German nationals. A friend asked: 'Do you believe in Hitler's racial theories?' 'Of course not, that is a stupid question.' 'Who took your German nationality away?' 'Hitler of course.' 'Don't you see that refusing to become German again means you agree with the Nuremberg Laws, which stated that Jews cannot be Germans?' Conceding that he was right, I became a German citizen again. It took me some time to realise that my letter to the Home Office showed that I had embraced Nazi racial laws.

Israel was my country of the mind. The brother of my maternal grandfather went to Palestine in 1933 and opened the first psychiatric hospital in Haifa. A cousin became chief of staff of the Israeli navy and my aunt was a founder of Youth Aliya. But my real passion for Israel was the kibbutzim - to me as a socialist the ideal society. During the 1967 war I supported Israel in a debate at East Ham College of Technology, where I was teaching,

Then came the settlements. At first, I accepted the government's explanation that they were for defensive purposes only. But when I visited Israel with the Leo Baeck College and we walked through Hebron's market street, I noticed the hateful looks from the Palestinians. Though enthused by Oslo, I was perturbed that even under Rabin settlement building continued. Then came the second intifada. The Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem reported that in 2003, 82 Palestinians died at checkpoints because they could not get medical assistance in time; 52 women gave birth at checkpoints, resulting in the deaths of 17 children. Israel my country of the mind? Never.

I am of course a cosmopolitan, but England always had a special attraction for me. My father spent several years as an apprentice in Bond Street and always spoke highly of English tolerance. When I came to England I not only fled persecution but came to a country for which I had the greatest regard. I have lived most of my life in England, my wife and children are English, and the English way of life is my way of life.

In 1940 I was at an Old Vic production of Shakespeare's Richard II. When John of Gaunt recited the famous lines 'this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England', the audience burst into applause. I joined in. I have no doubt that my country is England.
Peter Prager

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