In the mid-1930’s, my great uncle, just out of high school and struggling to find a job, came home one day to announce he was changing his last name from Gerstenfeld to Grey. The entire family went along with his decision, and today that family is the Grey family.
My family is not alone. Jews around the globe have changed their names throughout history to help avoid antisemitism, to assimilate and generally to blend in.
But today, some Jews are fighting to change their names back. A recent article in the LA Times reports that close to 30 French Jews, whose families changed their names to more French-sounding ones after World War II, have formed La Force du Nom (The Strength of the Name). The group is petitioning France’s State Council to legally revert their names back to the original, more Jewish-sounding ones.
Unfortunately the French civil code that originally allowed Jewish families to alter their names declares the “impossibility” of changing them back. However, upon receiving requests from members of La Force du Nom last month, the State Council has said it will deal with each query on a case-by-case basis.
Celine Masson is one of the petitioners. Her family changed its name from Hassan when it immigrated to France from Tunisia in the 1960s. An immigration officer asked if they wished to adopt a more French-sounding name. They did not object, nor did many of the other families, some saying they believed they didn’t have a choice.
“I was born a Masson, but the name means nothing,” she told the LA Times. “It carries no history, it says nothing about my family, my roots, where we came from.”
So far, none of the names have been changed back to their original spellings but the group hopes that if one name is changed it will have a domino effect.