Children saved by Sir Nicholas Winton are not entitled to a Czech or Slovak passport – though they may claim a German one!

Brexit has had surprising consequences in matters no one previously thought of. It has come to light that Czechoslovak Jewish children who were able to escape to Great Britain from Prague before the end of August 1939, getting on trains arranged for by Sir Nicholas Winton, generally are not entitled to a Czech or Slovak passport. They do have a claim for a German passport, though.

We see today that Brexit has had remarkable consequences in areas nobody would have thought of. Many British citizens are exploring the possibilities to get their hands on an EU passport – a Czech or Slovak one would do just fine. But rather astonishingly, the Czechoslovak Jewish children who were able to escape to Great Britain from Prague before the end of August 1939, getting on trains arranged for by Sir Nicholas Winton, as a rule are not entitled to a Czech or Slovak passport. Nor do their descendants. And yet, as of the end of August 2021, they all may claim a German passport! Kafka meets Brexit!

The tale of Sir Nicholas Winton and the 669 children whose lives he saved in 1939 is notorious, and it is only fitting that not one but two memorials at Prague Main Station commemorate the noble deed. In the span of a few precious months immediately preceding World War II, investment banker Nicholas Winton, then 29 years of age (he died in 2015 at 106) – and later the subject of several documentaries – and a number of combatants saved almost 700 Czechoslovak Jewish children by delivering into safety from the territory of what the Nazis called the “Rest-Tschechei” (the Czech rump state), Slovakia, and Austria, and (as of mid-March 1939), the Protectorate, the Sudetenland, and Slovakia. A list of those children exists, which is reminiscent of Schindler’s list and can be accessed online: Their rescue is compelling testimony of Nicholas Winton’s pragmatism and of the possibility of humane acts even in the darkest hours, and at the same time an important memento for our own time. The Czech Republic, of all places, has been treating today’s refugees in the most ignominious manner.

Ultimately, the tale of Winton’s Children and their rescue is a tragic one: most of them lost their parents, who were left behind in Central Europe and murdered in the camps. Nonetheless, many of them, and their descendants, are eager to retrace their roots, e.g. by applying for a Czech or Slovak passport – quite naturally, since most of them hailed from Czechoslovakia. Since 2016, there is a more practical reason to do so: Brexit caused them to lose EU citizenship.

Winton’s children from former Austria – which had been incorporated into the German Reich since mid-March 1938 by way of the “Anschluss” – and their descendants have had a decent chance of success with applications for an Austrian passport filed after September 2019. Nothing is known about the situation in Slovakia. But as for Czechoslovak children (and their children and grandchildren – not their great-grandchildren) from the territory of today’s Czech Republic, it is still of decisive importance – in spite of the 2019 liberalization of the Czech Citizenship Act – whether they were Czech native speakers according to what their families put on the Czechoslovak census forms of 1920, 1039, and 1939, respectively. However, Jewish families in particular would have been unlikely to do so: their native language was for the most part German, even if their felt identity was Jewish or Czechoslovak, no matter whether they lived in Prague, Brno (Brünn, to them), or Ústí (Aussig, at the time). Jewish was not a census category at the time, unless you reported Yiddish as your mother tongue. Having stated German as one’s native language would prove fatal as soon as 1945: native German and Hungarian speakers – including children – have no chance of acquiring Czech citizenship, because of Beneš Decree No. 33/1945 of 2 August 1945, which considers them German and Hungarian citizens who lost their Czech citizenship – according to current Czech administrative practice! – retroactively as at 10 October 1938 or 16 March 1939, i.e., even before they got on the life-saving trains. Then as now, these Jewish children – and Czechoslovak citizens – were collateral damage, so to speak, of the massive expulsion policy of then Czechoslovak president Dr. Edvard Beneš, which was implemented by Communist minister of the interior Václav Nosek. Never mind that in August 1945, the Jewish children had long left the country, and rather involuntarily to boot: their desperate parents had put them on trains to England in 1939, letting them travel alone as minors so as to save their lives. These kids had nothing to do with the events as they unfolded from the end of 1938. Worse still: Their denaturalization is being applied retroactively, as of the moment in which the Sudetenland was ceded and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was installed. And since most of the children had filed no application for being exempted from this deprivation of citizenship by 10 February 1946 (as per Sec. 2 (2) of the Beneš Decree), their claim to Czech citizenship became statute-barred. But how could they have filed an application? Most of them were still minors at the end of February 1946, and their parents had been murdered. Czech public authorities in the year 2022 could not care less: The statutory term has lapsed, and you missed it? Your claim is precluded, simple as that. Kafka meets Brexit.

Having said all that, these children and all their descendants (including great-grandchildren) are now (since August 2019) entitled to a German passport: according to Sec. 15 No. 2 of the German Citizenship Act, they or their ancestors were excluded from the collective “naturalization as German Reich citizens” (to use the Nazi term) in the Sudetenland, the Protectorate, and Slovakia for racial reasons, i.e., precisely because they were Jews, and it is this very fact which now entitles them to a passport issued by Germany – the country where the immeasurable harm and injustice originated which befell their families, the country of which they had never previously been citizens. Is this absurd – or fortuitous happenstance? Neither: The German Citizenship Act in this case is motivated by the thought of awarding German citizenship as a form of reparation. The Brits who are unhappy about Brexit will take what they get. To quote one affected individual who summarized the principle (“As long as it is an EU passport”): “Best would be a Czech passport, a German would do it, too, and even a Slovak one is fine.”

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