When the Past Never Passes

Alumni4 MIN READ

A documentary film by Jessica Lyon ’19 reveals the complexity of reclaiming German citizenship after the Holocaust

Jessica Lyon ’19
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
January 9, 2020

Over a half-million Jews lost their German citizenship under Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. Almost nine decades later, an increasing number of German Jews and their descendants are applying to get that citizenship back.

In a documentary film, Reclaiming German Citizenship After the Holocaust, Jessica Lyon ’19 has brought together personal narratives of 10 German Jews and their descendants living in the United States. The stories of different generations within families show how each grapple with the idea of regaining German citizenship, a right which has been part of German law since 1949.

“My grandfather grew up in a German Jewish family, and he had to leave with his family during the Holocaust,” said Lyon, who read a story about American Jews seeking to restore German citizenship in 2016. This, she thought, would be an interesting documentary film. Two years later, that idea became her capstone project for her independent major in cinema studies.

Throughout her four years she took a variety of courses, including film production and theory classes, and did several internships, including one at Sydney Film Festival. In the end, all of these experiences came together in her documentary film for which she traveled to five states—from Maine to Pennsylvania to Maryland—during her breaks with support from Colby’s Center for the Arts and Humanities and a Compagna-Sennett Fellowship from the Religious Studies Department.

In the course of making the 43-minute film, Lyon met Frank Cohn, a Holocaust survivor born in Braslau (currently, Wrocław, Poland) in 1925. “I escaped from Germany in 1938 and settled in New York, where I went to school. That was at age thirteen,” Cohn says in the film. “The German citizenship was taken away when my mother tried to get another extension of her passport and they took the passport and stamped it no longer valid, invalid.”

The story of Deborah Stein and her two children, Sarah Stein Lubrano and Ben Stein-Lubrano, presented another unique viewpoint. “Being German was not something we thought of positively at all. My parents, for example, were not willing to buy a German car because they did not want to support the industries that have been part of Hitler’s Germany,” says Deborah Stein in the documentary. When her daughter, Sarah, learned that they can apply to restore their German citizenship, the family began questioning what this would mean for them.

“I came to really like some of the older people; I’ve never met them except through her footage.”

Steve Wurtzler, associate professor of cinema studies

“What’s interesting is it was not an automatic extension of citizenship. A person has to volunteer,” Yoder explains in the film. “They have to go through a process of saying, ‘Yes, I’d like the citizenship restored.’ And I think it’s the German government realizing not everyone wants to be welcomed back into the fold of German citizenship, that they may not have the desire to be part of that community again. It’s an interesting form of reparation.”

With each account, Lyon showed the complexity of reclaiming German citizenship.

“Yes, it’s about German citizenship,” she said, “but it’s not just about that. It’s about so much more. It’s about belonging, family, history, culture, identity, and much more.”

Lyon’s advisor, Associate Professor of Cinema Studies Steve Wurtzler, said he was very pleased with the final cut. “To me one of the most important components of her project was the research that involved identifying these people, approaching them, getting them to agree to talk on camera, and then being prepared to interact with them,” said Wurtzler. “I came to really like some of the older people; I’ve never met them except through her footage. But I feel like a kind of warmth for some of them. … She was really able to put these people at ease and give them a sense of comfort where they could express sometimes difficult memories.”

To Wurtzler, Lyon is “another step in a long trajectory of Colby students embracing new ways of expressing themselves.”

For her, making a documentary film was the right medium. “I think this project has helped me explore more of my Jewish identity. I think that portion of my identity—I’m still trying to understand it and still trying to define what it means to be Jewish to myself,” said Lyon, who is now a multimedia producer at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and still exploring ways to air her work. “I think that project helped promote that conversation within me and also see other people’s relationships and experiences to Judaism.”

View trailer of the documentary, Reclaiming German Citizenship After the Holocaust.