Diaspora Jews whose Austrian relatives fled the Nazis this week began applying for Austrian citizenship after a new law came into effect on Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of descendants are now eligible to apply for citizenship of the European Union country after lawmakers in Vienna opted to ease current rules, with the aim of righting an historic wrong.
An estimated 120,000 of Austria’s 200,000-strong Jewish community fled Nazi persecution in the late 1930s, including hundreds of children who travelled on the Kindertransport, the trains ultimately arriving at London’s Liverpool Street station.
For decades after the war, Austria barred dual citizenship, preventing many of those who fled from applying, but bureaucratic obstacles began easing in the 1990s, and current Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, elected in 2017, pledged to do more.
In the past three years, Kurz has strongly developed bilateral relations with Israel and has accepted the arguments made by those seeking to include more descendants than had previously been eligible.
Among the organisations to have taken an interest is the Jewish Historical Society of England, which asked former Jewish refugees from Europe and their descendants to describe their motivations for or against reclaiming European citizenship.
Simon Albert, who worked with Dr Ruvi Ziegler on the initiative, told The Observer that the benefits of EU citizenship “have driven a post-2016 surge in citizenship applications from British people with a Jewish background to countries their ancestors fled, in Germany’s case up to 6,000”.
He added: “Such a ‘return’ is unprecedented in Jewish history and raises often painful dilemmas, unlike for other Brits claiming EU citizenship.”
Austria’s current Jewish population is estimated at around 10,000, and Jewish leaders said this number would likely not be boosted significantly, with most new passport holders choosing not to emigrate.
Bini Guttmann, the Austrian president of the European Union of Jewish Students, said: “Descendants know where intolerance can lead. As citizens, I would encourage them to have a say in the country’s direction through their vote.”