As individuals within a species, we are all pretty much identical; no one would mistake any of us for an elephant or a spider or a barracuda. Yet, how we focus on the differences of our fellow humans, blinding ourselves to the similarities and thus, to the possibility of unity. Dividing ourselves into groups based upon minute differences, our larger and dominant groups make life hell for the smaller groups, who in turn, make life hell for groups smaller than they. One would laugh, if only not to weep.
French Jewish people, in an effort to assimilate, have often changed their surnames to sound more French. After the Second World War, government officials, at the local level most often, urged Jewish residents and immigrants to change their surnames. About five per cent did so. Many of their descendants now wish to change their names back to those of their grandfathers, even though they are sympathetic to those who made the changes. As one descendant said of his grandfather to a Los Angeles Times reporter: "He never complained [about being encouraged to change his name]. Remember these were people who, after what they had been through, just wanted to live in peace. They would do anything to blend in."
At the time of the changes, some were told that their children could, on reaching the age of majority, choose to take back the family's previous surname. This was simply not true. One must apply for a court order -- something not lightly given in France -- and have a very good reason to change one's name. In a 2010 article for Libération, three people explain why their "Frenchified" names make them feel cut off from their roots.
One such descendant, the psychoanalyst Cécile Masson, has formed an organisation for those who wish to take back their family's earlier names, La Force du Nom. A discussion of the issues with her and others can be heard on the internet radio site of France Culture on the presentation entitled "Du changement de nom au re-nom". Ms. Masson has produced a documentary on the subject, of an hour and a bit, based on interviews with some Jewish families of Ashkenaz origin. It has been shown at various venues and will be shown at the 32nd International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference in Paris this month. For those who cannot attend, the DVD may be purchased from the bookshop of the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme. (Two other films planned for the conference have excerpts online: "Le Premier du Nom" and "A Little Family Conversation".)
Should your research into Jewish ancestry in France have run aground, a name change may be why.
Update: in April, 2013, the courts granted French Jewish people the right to change their names back to earlier names used by the families, as reported in the Times of Israel.
©2012 Anne Morddel