Last month, I attended a family reunion/heritage trip for my wife's family. Her maternal grandparents escaped from Austria to the United States prior to World War II. They and many others were forced to emigrate and leave everything behind because the government was persecuting Jews.

Although many of Austria's 192,000 Jewish citizens were well-integrated into wider Austrian society prior to the War, anti-Semitism was on the rise through the 1930's. As part of our tour, we visited the Medical University of Vienna (established 1365), where my wife's grandfather was a student. We learned how fascist gangs intimidated and beat up Jewish students in the early 1930's, during his time there. Despite the danger, Jews continued to attend the school because they valued the opportunity for a world class education. However, as the decade wore on, increasing numbers of Jewish students and professors were forced to leave the university. Then, in March 1938, Nazi Germany occupied Austria. The vast majority of (non-Jewish) Austrians supported the move.

Shortly after the occupation (called the Anschluss), almost all Jews were forced out of the medical profession and the medical school. Nazi philosophy could not tolerate "inferior races," like Jews, caring for Aryans and there was no longer a place in Austria for Jewish doctors. Like other medical students, my wife's grandfather was kicked out of the university. He was later deported to a concentration camp before obtaining a visa and immigrating to the United States.

Of those Jews who remained in Austria, the vast majority--more than 60,000--were murdered during the Holocaust. By the end of the War, only about 800 Jewish people were left in the country.

Fast forward to July 2022, when two dozen descendants of the "refugee generation" arrived in Vienna for a reunion and family history tour. Those present were first, second, and third generation immigrants. By the time we arrived in Austria, a number of the descendants had obtained Austrian citizenship through a program created especially for family members of people who fled during the Holocaust (it's a topic for another day--or perhaps someone's Ph.D. thesis--but obtaining citizenship through this program was a long, difficult, and often degrading process; in other words, not so different from what immigrants to the U.S. experience). The program was designed to help rebuild the relationship between the descendant family members and the "home" country, and I do think those family members who received citizenship were quite glad to have it (even if they generally have not used the citizenship for any purpose).

As for out trip, the highlights included a reception at the medical school where my wife's grandfather had been a student. The president of the university was present and gave a talk. We also toured the school and saw how the university was dealing with its legacy of anti-Semitism and complicity with Nazism (and with other injustices, such as the exclusion of women from the profession). One interesting example was a pro-fascist statue located in a prominent green space on campus. Rather than remove the statue, the university built a plexiglass box around it, and covered the box with the text of a letter, written by a student who had been exiled from the university and describing her ordeal.

Another highlight was a visit to Mikulov, a town just across the border in the Czech Republic where my wife's more distant (and more famous) ancestor, Mordecai Benet, is buried. At one time, Mikulov had a thriving Jewish community and from 1789 until his death in 1829, Mordecai Benet served there as Chief Rabbi of Moravia. We visited Rabbi Benet's grave, which is a popular pilgrimage destination and we toured the town. In Mikulov today there are no Jewish residents, but one synagogue remains, serving mostly as a museum.

As an attorney who specializes in political asylum, the trip brought to mind my own clients. Many of them have fled from persecution in their countries, much as my wife's grandparents did nearly 85 years ago. I wonder how my clients' future descendants will relate to their "homelands."

I suppose in large part, the answer to that question will depend on how those countries evolve (or de-evolve) over time. For decades after WWII, Austria famously refused to take responsibility for its actions during the Holocaust. Austrians tried to convince themselves that they were the "first victims" of Nazism (since they were "victims" of the Anschluss), when in fact they were willing participants. Only in recent years has the country really started coming to terms with its history.

Reconciling with the past comes with benefits and risks. On the plus side, I think this process is what opened the door for our family reunion, as well as improved relations with the Austrian diaspora more generally. It also allows the country to more fully and more credibly participate in the community of nations. In addition, when a country has learned from its past and values all its inhabitants, those inhabitants can better fulfill their potential, which in turn strengthens and enriches their country. On the other hand, dealing with past injustices can be divisive and can energize reactionary elements in society (see, e.g., the Republican party).

Of course, reconciling with the past requires a stable, democratic system. It also requires a certain level of self confidence. Despite a long recovery from WWII, Austria today is a wealthy, stable, self confident, and democratic nation.

Unfortunately, most of my clients' home countries are poor, unstable, corrupt, and autocratic--the exact opposite of what is needed for economic, political or social progress. Such countries are not well positioned to improve themselves and are often stuck in a vicious cycle. Whether these countries can overcome their current woes, I do not know.

But given time, perhaps my clients' countries can improve. If so, relations with their exiled citizens (and the descendants of those citizens) will be very beneficial. People like my clients--who have been forced to relocate--tend to be hard working and successful. They are strong proponents of democracy, the rule of law, women's rights, and education. They want to remain engaged with their homelands, whether this is through family connections, language, food, culture or politics. They can be powerful allies for countries willing to accept their help.

And so I hope that my clients and their progeny will be able to remain connected to their homelands, just as my wife's family has done. Perhaps it is ironic that people forced to seek protection abroad have such a strong desire to stay connected with their country, but that is the refugee story. Whether the current generation of refugees can maintain a connection to their homeland remains to be seen, but if they can, both the home countries and the exiled citizens will benefit.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: