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What's in a name?

Many immigrants into the US and the UK, in particular European refugees, used to anglicise their names. Would you switch back?

    I don’t remember much about my grandfather other than a shock of grey hair and a strong German accent.

    He died before I was old enough to know much about what words like Holocaust or lebensraum or antisemitism meant, but not before I was old enough to idly ask my parents why he’d left Germany to come to Scotland.

    After what I imagine must have been an awkward pause, one of them told me it was because Germany had been taken over by a man called Hitler, who had wanted everyone to have blonde hair and blue eyes.

    My grandfather had grey hair and brown eyes, so that made sense to my younger self, who started imagining my grandfather’s flight from Germany as some kind of Robin Hood-style escape, slipping over the border with the Fuhrer (who I imagined as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed goliath) pursuing him with a sword. 

    As I got older, I learned it hadn’t quite happened like that. The details of my grandfather’s story are too many, and too awful, for me to do them justice, so I’ll just give you the basic facts.

    My grandfather left his home in Leipzig, Germany to come to Britain following an altercation with a Nazi party official.

    Most of his family didn’t make it out after him.

    On reaching the UK he renounced his old country, and joined the British Army. Once the war was over, he left the army, met my grandmother, worked as a furrier, had two children and four grandchildren, one of which was me.

    He also changed his name. There wasn’t much room in the British military, or in Blitz-blighted Glasgow, for a man called Wolfgang Rimalower. So a home-office clerk did what the entire machinery of the Third Reich had failed to do and removed Wolfgang Rimalower, German refugee from existence, replacing him with Peter Rodney, British citizen.

    Now, this is all history: or, rather, it was that, until a couple of days ago when my dad started canvassing my family about whether he should change his name back to Rimalower.

    It could have been the fact that this took place just a few days shy of Holocaust Memorial Day, but this question threw me more than it should have.

    I’m an English student, after all, so agonising about language and definition is the only thing I’m good for. On one hand, the name “Rodney” is artificial, picked at random by some bureaucrat who probably never gave my family a second thought, and is most likely dead now in any case. On the other hand, “Rimalower” is alien, foreign, different- not bad things in themselves, but certainly enough to give me some pause before I apply it to myself.

    But it’s not just that. As much as I might think the anglicised version of my name synthetic and inauthentic, the same could be said of my connection with the name Rimalower and everything it’s come to represent in my mind. While I’m not a stranger to antisemitism, I’m about as far removed to the industrial-scale slaughter my grandparents survived. What right have I got to lay claim to the toughness and courage, to say nothing of the hard-fought for cultural heritage, that it represents?

    Maybe I’m just being melodramatic and pretentious here, but it feels like all the conflicts involved in being young and secular and Jewish and British are summed up by that question. 

    Jamie Rodney is one of the JC's regular student bloggers for 2017-18. He is studying English at St Andrews University

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