VIENNA — The same Friday morning the news broke that Roe v. Wade had been overturned in the United States, halfway around the world it was approaching nighttime in Vienna, and the flames from two Shabbat candles gently flickered over a podium draped with a Pride flag at Or Chadasch, a Reform synagogue in the city. Radio noise from the security outside occasionally drifted in through the slightly open windows as a lay leader guided the Friday night service.
Towards the back of the room, in a neat row of blue, green and white chairs sat new Austrian citizen Giuliana Schnitzler, turning the pages of her prayer book along with each new song or prayer.
After living in Austria for more than 30 years, Schnitzler, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, has now become a citizen, thanks to an October 2019 revision of Austria’s citizenship laws.
An amendment to the Austrian Citizenship Act (58c para. 1a) allows descendants of victims of the Nazi regime who had ties to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to acquire citizenship by filing a declaration — without having to give up their current citizenship or nationality in return. Before this amendment came into effect in 2020, American-born Schnitzler would have been required to give up her United States citizenship to receive an Austrian one.
Her father, Peter Schnitzler, who was taken by his parents from Vienna to the United States when he was just under 2 years old in late 1938, had his citizenship restored in the 1990s.
“I think he was, on one hand, proud of it. On another, he’d gone back and forth all of his life like me. He was as much Austrian as he was American,” said Giuliana Schnitzler, who spent some of her childhood years living between Los Angeles, Vienna and Berlin.
“There was never a question about giving up our American citizenship — we only would do this if we could have dual nationality. That is also this very deeply submerged feeling of safety that, with the American citizenship, we could still always get out,” said Schnitzler.
She was raised with a Jewish identity and worked to ensure the same for her daughter growing up in Austria, but she recalls that it was something her father battled with because of his experiences.
“For him, there was a huge conflict between what his family went through, what he went through as a baby and how he felt about being Jewish,” she said. “He was Jewish, but at the same time, he didn’t get any joy out of it. In a way, it was a threat to him.”
There was never a question about giving up our American citizenship
Before retiring, Schnitzler worked in film production and later as a teacher in Vienna. Not much in daily life has changed since obtaining citizenship and a passport, but some things are now easier and there is a sense of emotional satisfaction, as well.
“I was delighted. First of all, on the practical level of the fact that I live here, so having Austrian citizenship and being able to have an EU citizenship most definitely was going to make things easier for me,” Schnitzler said. “The other part was this feeling of justification. They kicked out my whole family, and I love the fact that we could all be Austrian citizens again. They couldn’t get rid of us that easily.”
Municipal Department 35 (MA 35), the authority for immigration and citizenship, has received 25,500 declarations in total, with 15,000 of them having been approved as of July, said Tamara Petrovic, a general consultant who works in the department responsible for the descendants of victims of the National Socialist regime. About 800 declarations have been denied.
While declarations are submitted to Austrian embassies and consulates from around the world, Petrovic said, a majority come from Israel, the United States, Great Britain and Australia, as well as some South American countries.
“Most people have emotional motives, or want to build an emotional connection to Austria or they seek stability for worst-case scenarios or unstable times,” Petrovic said. “They have a Plan B, so they could move to Austria or to the EU if something were to happen.”
The immigration authority does not anticipate many people moving to Austria or other EU countries after becoming citizens, but they see younger applicants expressing interest in coming to study for limited periods of time, Petrovic said.
A major benefit of Austrian citizenship is that it unlocks opportunities to live, work or study in the European Union.
After successfully receiving Austrian citizenship, Julie Bronder and her husband Nik decided to leave Chicago and spend a year based in Spain with the aim of traveling to a different European country each month, including a visit to Austria.
The passport — I look at it more on a broader scale as an EU citizen
“The passport — I look at it more on a broader scale as an EU citizen. Because I’m using it to live in Spain right now, I’m using it to travel more easily,” Bronder said. “Instead of doing it when we’re 65 and retired, we’re like, ‘Let’s do this now for a year or something.’ I don’t think this is a forever move, by any means.”
Formerly working as a digital media producer for the American sports channel the Big Ten Network, her path toward becoming an Austrian citizen began when watching the news leading up to the 2020 election.
“It was maybe late September, early October,” she said. “We’re watching the news, it’s election time, and we’re just kind of thinking, ‘My gosh, what if Trump wins again?’ My husband was like, ‘There’s got to be a way out of this country with your family history.’”
They hadn’t yet discovered the Austrian amendment she was eligible for, although Bronder knew the history of her grandmother being able to escape Vienna. One criterion for citizenship today includes having an ancestor that left Austria before 1955 due to fear or suffering of persecution.
When we stumbled upon this process and saw what was needed, a little bit of a light bulb went off
“When we stumbled upon this process and saw what was needed, a little bit of a light bulb went off,” she said.
Bronder remembered a box she inherited from her mother, which was originally passed down from her grandmother. With a renewed interest in researching her family history, she went through the box and found several supporting documents, including a birth certificate and an application for her grandmother to receive payments from the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism.
Her Austrian grandmother, Gertrude Klarman, met her future American husband, Aaron Kornblau, while they were both medical students at the University of Vienna. They married, and Kornblau was able to take Klarman, and later her mother, back to the United States in 1938.
It took only a few months for Bronder to receive a decision about her citizenship. By law, declarations must be processed within six months, MA 35 employee Petrovic said.
“I always knew I would be patient about it, because, to me, it’s almost like they don’t have to be doing this. It’s almost like a bonus,” Bronder said. “Think of any other citizenship process — how long that takes and you need an actual lawyer. It doesn’t happen in four months the way this did.”
Another family, the Feinemans, chose to use their new citizenship to move from Colorado to Austria.
About two hours south of Vienna, Graz is Austria’s second-largest city. There, Amy Feineman softly swayed in a gray hammock to the sounds of birds chirping, looking out at her meadow-like backyard as she wound down in the early afternoon with her youngest daughter, Lily, on a hot day.
The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, Feineman recently received her Austrian citizenship and moved to Graz in July 2021 with her husband, Mike, and two daughters, Ada and Lily.
She first learned of the amendment in the fall of 2020 and immediately began gathering the necessary documents. Prior to that, she and her husband had already discussed moving their family to another country, such as Australia, where Feineman, a saddle fitter, had a job opportunity and family.
While it was her family history that opened up opportunities to move to the EU, it was her husband’s job in software development that brought them specifically to Austria.
There were many reasons behind the choice to relocate, but one of the biggest motives was wanting to move toward a healthier work-life balance.
Our goals were just to have more of the lifestyle we wanted and less hustle culture
“Our goals were just to have more of the lifestyle we wanted and less hustle culture and to be able to raise our kids somewhere where we felt like they were safe,” said Feineman, explaining that by the time her eldest daughter was through kindergarten in rural Colorado, her school already had to shut down for two active shooters in the proximity.
Another motivation to move was leaving the expensive and poor quality healthcare they had in the United States and entering Austria’s high-ranking, two-tiered healthcare system, which Feineman said can still be overwhelming to navigate at times while in the process of improving her German. For a one-week inpatient surgery that was scheduled for her youngest daughter, who has hemophilia and other medical conditions, Feineman expected to pay €10 a night.
The family’s first few weeks in Graz were spent obtaining necessary documents and navigating the city and its bureaucracy. They had to get a Meldezettel (a residence registration form), a Handy-Signatur (a mobile phone signature) and work through school enrollments and passport appointments.
“There were a lot of unknown unknowns — things that caught us totally by surprise that we didn’t know we needed to know,” Feineman said, but added that there are far fewer unknowns now.
Feineman and her daughters received their Bescheides, a notice of a positive decision, two days before leaving for Graz, although they got confirmation beforehand from MA 35 that their citizenship would be successfully restored.
Her grandfather, Norbert Raucher, had a good childhood growing up in Vienna and was the youngest in a successful family that owned an apartment building, two custom men’s suits shops and a villa in a spa town south of Vienna.
“He went to the public schools and he said he never felt particularly Jewish,” Feineman said. “His mother would take him to the second district and go to synagogue, but other than that, it just wasn’t a big part of his life. If you had asked him, he would have said he wouldn’t have known what he was or what anyone around him was.”
In May 1938, Raucher was walking through the city when he was stopped by Brownshirts, Nazi Party militia, who asked why he wasn’t wearing a swastika.
“He said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t support what’s happening.’ So they beat him and his friend up and then the police came and arrested them for inciting violence and let the Brownshirts go,” Feineman said. “Over the course of the next few days, he was sent to Dachau.”
Raucher was imprisoned in Dachau and later Buchenwald, concentration camps in which more than 28,000 and 56,000 people were murdered, although exact figures remain unknown, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One morning in January 1939, Raucher was called out of line, unsure of what was happening, as people who were called out of line didn’t come back. Surprisingly, he was given a Nazi-issued passport and sent on a train back to Vienna after his sister was able to secure him a three-month visa to England. Raucher spent some time in England learning a trade and eventually made his way to the United States with the help of extended family.
The move to Austria was more intense than Feineman initially expected.
“I had felt kind of a connection to it growing up, but a weird associated one, I guess,” Feineman said. “He always spoke about how much he loved Vienna and how he was Viennese. By the time I knew him, he had dementia — he would often speak in German or talk about Vienna very fondly, there were definitely chunks that were missing.”
I had felt kind of a connection to it growing up, but a weird associated one, I guess
After experiencing their first year in Graz, the Feinemans plan to stay for at least another three or four years.
Culturally, they recognize that they were brought up American and may never be fully Austrian, but they aim to speak the language fluently, to be a part of the community and to continue to make local friends.
“I think we got really lucky because we didn’t do any research,” Feineman said. “We were like, once we get over here we can make adjustments. But we needed to make that first move. We love it here.”