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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