|In the rural areas of Germany at that time, ties between the Jews and their non- Jewish neighbors were considerably good. The Germans therefore did not impose offensive names on the Jews, as was the case in Austrian Galicia. Lew tells of one Jew from the city Hiaasen who, upon being asked by the naming committee what he would like to be called, answered “Widerbach.” The officer misunderstood this as three separate words “Wi der bach,” which means “like the river” in German. Since the closest river in the vicinity was called Rilf, the Jew’s surname was now Rilf. Another Jew in the same city could not come up with a name for himself and asked the committee head to “guess” a name for him. In German he said “Rutten Zus,” (“Guess please”) and the committee head promptly registered his name as “Ruttenzus.”
There were quite a number of Jews who asked the local official in charge to choose a name for them. The result was sometimes a name that alluded to their lowly professions. This was, however, a rare phenomenon in the Western countries as compared to the Eastern European countries, where the surname laws were used by the authorities as an opportunity to express their blatant anti-Semitism.
NAMES FOR SALE
In 1787, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph the Second of Austria passed an edict which commanded “every Jew to take on a surname in the German language.” These names were generally chosen from special lists. Every Jew was required to make an appearance and choose a name from the list, for which he was charged a fee, of course. This fee went to the royal government who was so “graciously” helping them with the naming process.
“Expensive” names were words associated with flowers or metals such as Rosenthal (valley of roses) or Goldstein (gold stone). Names with more mean connotations were the cheapest: Holtz (wood), Stein (stone), Stahl (steel). Those who could not afford even the cheapest names received a name from the Emperor himself, a name with an absurd meaning that would make him the subject of mockery every time he came in contact with the authorities.
Such names were Azelkopf (donkey head), Auksenschvantz (ox tail), Shleicher (crawl), Unglick (misfortune), or Wanzenknicker (bug crusher). Most of these names became extinct during the course of years; bearers of such names got rid of their unrespectable- sounding identities either by bribing legal authorities or by changing their names when they emigrated to different countries. And yet, if you open an Israeli phonebook today, you can still come across names like Hazenfartz (rabbit face), Langnuz (long nose), or Hazenshprung (rabbit leap).
The onomastician (onomastics is the study of proper names) Alexander Bader stated that he was not able to track down even one legal document from the Austrian government that gives credence to the claim that differential prices were charged according to a name’s quality. His conclusion was that this phenomenon only occurred in certain small villages where the officers in charge succeeded in wheedling money out of the Jews under their rule.
The most derisive names were given in the Galician vicinity, located far from the central authorities and containing a large Jewish population.
In Hungary, which under Austrian rule spoke German, the name-giving procedure was very simple. The officer in charge divided the local Jews into groups. Those with black hair were called Schwartz (black), the blondes were named Weiss (white), and everyone else, either redheaded or bald were named according to height, either Gross (big) or Klein (small).
A British tourist who visited Hungary between the two world wars noticed that store signs bore their Jewish owners’ names as Kish, Nugh, Faher, and Fekete which mean big, small, white, and black in Hungarian.
Some Jews wore the names that were issued to them with pride, adding some spiritual connotation to their new name. Take, for example, one Jew who complied with the authorities’ commands to take on a German name and chose the name Becker for himself. Although the German meaning of Becker is baker, this righteous Jew chose to interpret it differently than his community peers and children. The acronym for Becker is “bnei kedoshim v’rabbanim, children of holy ones and rabbis.” Or how about the Russian Jew who chose the name Bick? The Russian translation of Bick is a fir tree, but for this Jew the secret code in his name was its acronym “bnei Yisrael kedoshim, the children of Israel are holy.”
One Jew who was not permitted to keep his name “ben-Moshe,” because it wasn’t a German name, ingeniously asked for the name Wassertzug which means “drawn from water” (the transliterated equivalent of Moshe).
“TRADE” MARK NAMES
The amount of surnames in all of Diaspora today exceeds 20,000, but as a matter of fact many of these names share a common meaning and origin.
There is one common denominator between the names Metzger, Katzav, Resnick, Resnickovitz, Schechter, Shechtman, Shochet, Fleisher, Fleishman, Fleishocker, Schlachter, Miasnick, and Miaskovski; the origin for these is one and the same — these were all names in various languages assigned to butchers and ritual slaughterers.
Following the “noble” and “less-than-noble” names came a phase during which Jews were named according to their professions: Bader (bath attendant); Druckman (printer); Gewirtzhandler (spice merchant); Gartner (gardener); Lederer (tanner); Lehrer (teacher); Peltzman (furrier); Russhandler (horse merchant); Schnitzer and Schnitzler (wood carver); Schuster (shoemaker); Teitelman (date merchant); Wagner (wagon builder); Wexler and Chalfon (exchanger); Wohlshlanger (wool manufacturer), Tischler and Nager (carpenter); Blecher and Koznitz (tinsmith); Schmidt, Kovel, and Kovitz, (blacksmith); Sabag, Muller, and Malerosky (painter); Zaltzman (salt merchant); and many more.
Names that connote professions can be found not only among people of European descent; there are Yemenite families as well whose names are rooted in trades: Elendaf (mattress weavers); Greidi (locust gatherers); Meborat (explosives manufacturer); Madar (potter); Manjam (stargazer); Chadad (smith); and Mashat (wool comber).
Some names allude to professions that are exclusive to Jews. One such name appears in various forms: Kister, Klausner, Templer, Schuldiner, and Shamash, all of them meaning shamash, a synagogue sexton. Likewise, we have names such as Kantor, Singer, Schulsinger (which may have morphed into Schlesinger), Chazanov, Chazantzik, Chazanovski, Chazanian, Chazanski, all of them meaning chazan, a cantor.
Sometimes you can tell the geographical origin of a name by its ending. Names that end with “yan” (Chakakyan) usually stem from Persia, “ski” (Abramski) originates from Russia and Poland, “er” (Posner) and “son” (Jacobson) usually suffix German names, and “itzki” (Koshitzki) and “sko” (Hirsko) come from Romania.
But there are exceptions to every rule. Avraham Stahl once asked a Jew of Moroccan descent if his name, Lavski, with its Eastern European suffix, might testify to Ashkenazic roots. But what Stahl learned was that the name Lavski was formed from the words “al Vaski,” referring to the city Vaska in Northern Spain.
The name Aptaker, which means pharmacist in German, is of Eastern Europe origin but has a very similar counterpart, Aptakar, in India where it is a “geographical” surname.
In many Jewish names one could find the name of the person’s hometown (Frankfurter, Toledano, Posner, Heilpern, Alfasi), names that were given based on the father’s first names (Abramowitz, Davidson) and sometimes the mother’s (Sirkis, Rivkin, Eideles). There are names that hint at their original bearer’s personality: Abulafia (big man), Gutman (good man), Altman (old man). There are some that are even an anagram of an earlier family name; the name Weil in Hebrew (vov-yud-lamed)is an anagram of Levi (lamed-vav-yud).