Jewish names and papers

Stability is not a common trait in Jewish names and those researching their family tree should not expect too much consistency from generation to generation or even over the course of a single individual’s life. Leaving to one side the traditional naming patterns before the era of (supposedly) fixed surnames, Jewish names change, or different names are used, for a host of reasons. 

A Jewish person or family resident in a country using the Cyrillic alphabet will spell his or her name, or have it spelt for them in official papers, in one way but transliterate it differently into the Latin alphabet. There is not a simple 1:1 correspondence between the characters of the two alphabets and there are different transliteration systems which, in turn, have changed over time and differ by place (for example, French and German transliterations from Russian often differ from the English and American). 

Of course, many Jews and virtually all educated Jews in Eastern Europe were fluent in at least two languages, depending on their place of residence: in the former Russian empire, including the Congress Kingdom of Poland, they might well have spoken Russian, and/or German, and/or Polish. The Jewish lingua franca of the empire was Yiddish, although an increasing number were at least conversant with Hebrew. Yiddish also had its dialects, such as Litvish spoken by the Litvaks, which affected the pronunciation and therefore also the spelling or rendering of proper names. 

When Jews emigrated westwards, to Germany, for instance, or France or the Netherlands, and especially when they came into contact with the English-speaking world, their eastern names caused difficulties of orthography and pronunciation, and were subject to change in spelling and usage. Here is Joseph Roth writing in The Wandering Jews (translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books, 2001) about the experience of Galician Jews arriving in Vienna: 

“Christian papers are in order. All Christians have sensible, European names. Jewish names are mad and Jewish. Nor is that all: they have two or three surnames, qualified by false or recte. You never know what to call them. Their parents were married by a rabbi. The marriage has no legal standing. If the father’s name is Weinstock, and the mother’s Abramovsky, then the children of their union will be called Weinstock recte Abramovsky, or perhaps Abramovsky false Weinstock. The boy, for example, is given the Jewish first name of Leib Nachman. Because the name is difficult and might sound provocative to others’ ears, the son styles himself Leo. So his name is Leib Nachman styled Leo Abramovsky false Weinstock. As far as the police are concerned, names like that are nothing but trouble.” 

So the Jew will simplify or change his name to satisfy the civil servant who wants sensible order to prevail. Not that that will invariably give satisfaction, as the Jew will have papers, if he has papers at all, which do not support the claimed new identity, and which will cast further suspicion upon him. 

Roth’s remarks in a later chapter of his book should also be borne in mind when undertaking research: 

“Don’t be surprised at the Jews’ lack of attachment to their names. They will change their names with alacrity, and the names of their fathers, even though those particular sounds, to the European sensibility, are charged with emotional weight. For Jews their names have no value because they are not their names. Jews, Eastern Jews, have no names. They have compulsory aliases. Their true name is the one by which they are summoned to the Torah on the Sabbath and on holy days: their Jewish first name and the Jewish first name of their father. Their family names, however, from Goldenberg to Hescheles, are pseudonyms foisted upon them.” 

Roth is writing primarily about Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews of the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire but his cautionary words are salutary for anyone undertaking Jewish family history research.

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Jewish Drohobycz

The writer Bruno Schulz is not much read in the English-speaking world nowadays, nor perhaps anywhere outside Poland and Israel. You can find pretty much his entire fictional output in a single volume English translation by Celina Wieniewska. 

Schulz was the small-town Jewish boy who never really made good, a kind of obscure provincial Franz Kafka with a runaway mind veering towards the fantastic. He came from a modest and alternately successful and failing middle class background. His father Jakub Schulz was a clothier and later a bankrupt; his mother Henrietta or Hendel nee Kuhmärker took over the family business. The family appears in the JewishGen Ukraine Database, the nondescript name Schulz drawing no attention to itself, just one more lost Jewish name among many.  But there is Bruno, born in Drohobycz in 1892 (actually 12th July 1892). It is not clear whether the civil authorities recognised the Jewish marriage of his parents, although the family is thought to have assimilated, as some family entries seem to be registered under the mother’s maiden name Kuhmärker rather than Schulz. It was not at all unusual for Galician Jewish births to be recorded under the mother’s maiden name both in the days of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and during interwar Polish times; therefore, it is advisable to search under both names. 

Most summaries of Bruno’s family life refer to a single sister Hania and brother Izydor. However, there appear to have been two more siblings at least, namely Isak, who died as a three-year old boy in 1879, and Hinda, who also died aged three years of age in 1890; quite possibly there were others who died in infancy or childhood. Hania appears to have been born circa 1873 and to have married Moses Hoffmann in 1900; at the time of her marriage, according to JewishGen, she was spelling her name Anna or Chane. They had a son Ludwik in 1903. Izydor seems to have been born as Baruch Israel in 1881. He was a successful engineer with oil mining interests in Galicia; a 1912 directory shows that he was then residing at ulica św Bartłomieja in Drohobycz. He died in 1935. 

As for Bruno, he became an art teacher in the local school, wrote his fiction and received moderate acclaim for a while. Like Kafka he never married, although he had a string of female friends and correspondents and eventually was affianced to Józefina Szelinska, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who taught Polish and later worked in the bureau of statistics (perhaps the register office?). For her sake he renounced his religion, becoming officially “faithless”, but the intended resulting register office wedding never came to pass. Schulz survived the first Soviet occupation of Polish Galicia but was not to survive the subsequent Nazi occupation. 

As a modern poet once sang, “Every moment leads toward its own sad end”. Bruno Schulz was shot by a Nazi named Karl Günther while carrying a loaf of bread back home to the ghetto in November 1942.

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Bestowing Jewish surnames in Partitioned Poland

The Third Partition of Poland took place in 1795 and the partitioning powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia embarked on a process of registration of the inhabitants of the formerly independent country. This affected all sections of society – the Polish gentry (szlachta), town dwellers, Roman Catholic and other clergy, and the peasantry – and was implemented as part of the process of social control and political subjugation. Jews, who had enjoyed some autonomy under the old Polish state, now had to register with the civil authorities, a process which required a surname. Where surnames were not already in use – as was often the case – civil servants would assign a name to a family as part of the registration process. 

Norman Davies writes in his Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present (Oxford University Press, 2001) of how the young ETA Hoffmann, the German writer and musician, approached the momentous task of giving surnames to a people. He was posted and worked as a civil servant at Poznań (Posen), Płock and finally Warsaw. 

“He glares at a client in deathly silence, and then shouts out the first word which comes to mind. This word, which enters into the Register, becomes the client’s official surname. At the end, Hoffmann says when the certificate is to be collected, and calls for the next customer.” 

As described, the process, even when not demeaning, was completely arbitrary and often simply a matter of caprice: 

“Before dinner, or on an empty stomach, he issues serious or melancholy surnames, after dinner more amusing ones.” 

Davies relates how apparently one Friday Hoffmann gave Jewish registrants the names of fish; on Monday the names of flowers. On other days, everyone was given the names of birds, or church-related names. Once, hung-over following a drinking bout with a Prussian army officer, Jews coming to Hoffmann’s office were given military names such as Festung, Fojer, Pistolet, Szyspulver, Trommel, Trompeter and Harmata. 

Even if some of these stories are apocryphal, the attitude of the partitioning authorities to their new Jewish subjects is clear. Davies’ account also flags the point that Jewish family historians should not necessarily read too much into the surnames on their family tree.

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Jewish research in Belgrade, Serbia

 The Jews of Belgrade were largely exterminated by the Nazis and their local accomplices between October 1941 and May 1942. The Nazis declared the city Judenfrei by August of 1942. Of course, as elsewhere in Serbia and throughout Europe, this was seldom entirely true – individual Jews managed to go in to hiding, or were concealed and protected by kind neighbours, or left Belgrade for the relative safety of an obscure village in the countryside, or fled while there was still time with view to returning later. Nevertheless, the great majority of the pre-War Jewish population of Belgrade was destroyed. 

The Jews of Belgrade were both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, with the latter in the majority (as tended to be the case throughout the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans), forming approximately 80% of the overall community. Before the Shoah there were four functioning Sephardic synagogues and prayer houses in Belgrade. However, families were not necessarily religious – the Jews of Serbia were usually assimilated and often upwardly mobile and, as well as merchants and craftsmen, there were many shop salesmen and clerks, professionals and intellectuals. 

Although the community was destroyed in 1942, there are excellent surviving records covering the period from the turn of the century up to the Holocaust. These are not online but in some cases have been digitised and can be interrogated locally. Other and frequently more informative paper files have to be called up in the traditional way in the municipal archives. If an individual or a family was established in the city, especially in the Stari Grad (“old town”) neighbourhoods such as Dorćol, we can usually find a very good paper trail for the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s up to 1941/42, detailing dates of vital events, occupations, residential addresses and so on. Such records often indicate connections elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia or abroad – a sojourn in Croatia perhaps, a wife born in another city with a thriving Sephardic community, or a parent from Sofia in Bulgaria. 

If you are interested in Jewish family history research in Belgrade, Bluebird Research would be delighted to assist – please email us for an assessment and estimate of costs.

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The Jews of Belgrade

The very nature of the trade of a professional genealogist is to undertake research into someone else’s family history. As a genealogist, one is accustomed to researching one’s own tree and generally feels reasonably confident when visualising the past and imaginatively reconstructing the lives of one’s ancestors, based upon what one knows of local history and culture, the places where they lived and what they did for a living. At least that is certainly the case when one’s ancestors come from the same country and, as in my own particular case, the same county and often the same town. 

It is of course different if you live in diaspora, if you are, for example, a resident of North America or Australia or South Africa with ancestors back in the unfamiliar old world of continental Europe. When, as a professional genealogist, one conducts investigations on behalf of such individuals into their family background in Europe, one brings to bear the wide experience of one’s previous research across multiple cases, the knowledge derived from reading and, in many instances, from travel; but most of all one has to have what Keats called negative capability. This is the ability to suppress one’s own personality and to project oneself into the lives of others, to try to think and feel the world through their eyes. One might argue that this is largely spurious but I do not think it impossible to gain practical insights into avenues of research from this kind of imaginative or lateral thinking. Certainly, one often finds that one becomes preoccupied with particular individuals or lines of a family being researched, as one wonders about their lives, their motivations, what prompted them to emigrate, for example, or how they managed to survive adverse circumstances. 

David Albahari published in 1998 a book called, in English translation, Götz and Meyer*.  His book is an essay in negative capability, an attempt to come to terms with the experience and unknowable inner life of participants in the terrible drama of the extermination of the Jewish community of Belgrade once Serbia had been forced to capitulate to Nazi occupation. Between April and July 1941 almost 9,500 Belgrade Jews had to register with the authorities. The Jewish men of Belgrade were mostly shot in October 1941, but the women, children and elderly were taken to the Sajmište concentration camp (in the grounds of a former trade fair on the outskirts of the city) in December 1941. The protagonists of the title are Wilhelm Götz and Erwin Meyer, NCOs of the Nazi SS who operated the gaswagen that liquidated the Sajmište camp Jews between March and May 1942, using the truck’s exhaust fumes, on daily or twice-daily trips (excepting Sundays). What can one know of Götz and Meyer? Albahari presents them not as callous or psychopathic but as regular guys carrying out a perhaps unpleasant but necessary duty for the greater good. Gradually over the course of the book they are used as a means of teasing out the last days and demise of the family Albahari doesn’t know, those lost in the Shoah: 

“When I first tried to sketch out my family tree, it looked like… a blade of grass, like a bare tree, without leaves.” 

He interviews an ailing elderly relative living in care but still able to record the names of multiple uncles, aunts and cousins, whose lives Albahari then researches as best he can using the surviving vital records of the Jewish community of Belgrade: 

“My family tree now looked quite different, it had filled out with leaves and branches, and it was sturdier… I ought to have had 67 relatives, some of them close, others more distant… in fact I had only six, including the cousin in the old people’s home.” 

The cousin passes away shortly after. The other five kin, “the last kernels on a gnawed ear of corn”, lived in Argentina, Australia, Israel and USA. Their average age was 80 and all were childless. 

“I was an ear of corn with nothing but a few loose kernels left on it… when all of us died off, when our kernels fell into the washtub of time, nothing would be left from my parents’ families.” 

Although ironically, perhaps, the book is an easy read – you can read it in two sittings – it is a serious and sobering reflection on persecutor and victim, as well as a personal journey in discovering and attempting to come to terms with the past and realising the significance of memory. It also makes one start to think about the ones who got away, and how; what role was played by chance or luck or circumstances, and what part by the initiative, or sheer determination, or instinctive will to survive of those Jews of Belgrade who somehow came through the Holocaust years alive, against all the odds. 

*published by Vintage, 2005, in translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać

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