Dan Zeff

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, I’ve now realised

When I met my cousin, I really wasn’t prepared for his rationale for anglicising his name


Concept of time to change with businessman and mask

August 26, 2022 11:36

I met my cousin Mark recently for the first time. He’d got in touch after a relative’s family tree research had informed him of the existence of a branch of his (historically German Jewish) family living not that far away. He’d noticed I’d worked in TV and whilst he worked in a totally unconnected industry, said he’d like to meet to discuss an idea for a programme.

I was happy to meet for a coffee and the show he pitched wasn’t bad, but I was far more interested in discussing our family connection. My mother escaped to the UK as a child and many of her family died in transport or at Auschwitz. Apart from another small branch in the US, I wasn’t aware of many other family members scattered around.

So it was good to meet another Hilderstein. Although he wasn’t. He was “Mark Hill”. It’s the name his parents had taken when they’d come to England and he’d stuck with it. I’d heard the same story from my mother — having a German name was not a good thing in the 40s — and my mother had been encouraged to use the surname “Hilder” at school instead.

Only it wasn’t the same story. Because my mother’s parents, with other German Jewish refugees, took part in the founding of a local synagogue (where I had my barmitzvah 40 years later). My grandparents never sought to hide their Jewish identity (or their German accents) and after the first few years, encouraged their children to go back to “owning” their original surname as well.

Whereas my cousin still goes by the name “Hill”. Which isn’t unusual — there are many “anglicised” Jewish surnames, perhaps because their ancestors felt — or were forced — to adopt a more British name in order to fit in. It’s a family joke that my surname (from my father’s side) was probably an attempt to anglicise a polysyllabic Polish name in the late 1800s — but actually led to a name that sticks out in the UK about as much as a surname can.

But for my cousin, it wasn’t just the anglicised name but what he saw as the protection that went with it that his family had never felt confident to lose. Apart from his (non-Jewish) wife, none of his friends and colleagues or even his children knew he was Jewish. He told me if he was identified he was afraid he’d be treated differently, isolated, people would talk about him behind his back. He also said: “If it happens again, I don’t want to be on the wrong side.”

When he told me this, I didn’t know how to react. What side was the “wrong side”? And where did that place him? Watching securely, as others — including me and my family — were taken away to whatever fate might be planned?

I was feeling uncomfortable. But he was family. And he was Jewish. And it was him after all that had got in touch with me. He clearly felt some psychic need to connect over a cappuccino. He said he was desperate that I didn’t go away “thinking I’ve got two heads or something”. But in some ways, that was exactly what I thought. How immensely psychically stressful it must be for him, to be living this double life, to not feel able to be open about who he is or where he has come from — even with his own children?

I wondered afterwards: are there many Jews in the UK, still fearful and hiding their identity like him?

There are certainly many that live invisibly, happily under the radar. If it weren’t for my name, perhaps I’d be one of them. I no longer go to synagogue and lead a largely secular life with a non-Jewish partner. Apart from Passover, the occasional barmitzvah and a visceral weakness for chopped liver, reading the JC is perhaps as overtly Jewish as I get.

But unlike my cousin, I’ve never felt the need to hide my Jewish identity. On the contrary, growing up in London (and working in comedy) it’s always felt a source of great pride and comfort to know exactly who I am.

As Mark said goodbye, I reflected on our differences and how fortunate I’ve been to grow up feeling this way. And his fears, whether rational or not, reinforced in me a sense of how important it is that we remain vigilant, and not take our freedoms for granted.

But it was after he left that I became aware of something else — and I think this was the source of the discomfort I felt. Because I can’t help feeling that this vigilance entails a responsibility to be visible. Not just for our own sake. For many others facing prejudice today, often because of their accent, language or appearance, even the possibility of hiding has never been an option.

I realised how important it feels to me that we never simply hide ourselves, stand by and do nothing, but rather use our identity and history as a means of both standing up for ourselves - but also, always, for the treatment of others.

With not entirely undeliberate irony, names have been changed in this article to protect identities

August 26, 2022 11:36

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