From Moses to Moritz
The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait.
by Ruth Gay.
Yale University Press. 297 pp. $35.00.
The Stigma of Names: Anti-semitism in German daily life, 1812-1933.
by Dietz Bering.
Translated by Neville Plaice. University of Michigan Press. 360 pp. $49.50.
For several decades after World War II, the modern history of the Jews in Germany tended to be seen as an object lesson. The rapidity of their rise—from despised outsiders into economically successful and culturally fecund contributors to German life—combined and contrasted with the horror of their end, seemed to offer a paradigm, a moral. But what was the moral? What wisdom did the history of German Jews convey? Their ultimate demise was cited by historians as evidence of the failure of Enlightenment, and alternatively of the failure of the failure of Enlightenment; of the snare of assimilation, and alternatively of the contribution of emancipated Jewry to European culture.
In any case, as the late Gerson Cohen pointed out, it was German Jewry that provided Jews everywhere with models of almost every possible variety of response to modernity. From radical assimilation to militant Zionism, from Reform Judaism to neo-Orthodoxy, and from the historical understanding of Jewish history to modern Bible scholarship, it was in Germany that the Jewish encounter with modernity was most productive of new forms of Jewish self-understanding.
Recently, the history of the Jews in Germany has become a subject less marked by either filiopietism or partisanship. A new scholarship has arisen, fostered in large part by the Leo Baeck Institute with its branches in New York, London, and Jerusalem; indeed, in both quality and quantity, the new historical scholarship on German Jewry outstrips the present-day study of the far larger Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.
Ruth Gay’s The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait covers German Jewry from its origins in the Roman empire to its dissolution in the Third Reich. The book includes hundreds of illustrations, cartoons, and photographs, as well as brief excerpts from documents and memoirs. To say that this is a coffee-table book of a very high order is to capture its visual attractiveness and interest, testimony to the author’s archival resourcefulness. But its great merit lies in the narrative, which summarizes a good deal of recent scholarship in a brief and accessible manner.
The pictorial emphasis of the book means that the ritual, ceremonial, and folkloric elements of Jewish life—what historians now call “material culture”—are highlighted. Mrs. Gay also devotes considerable attention to the men and women of Jewish origin who contributed to German culture. Unfortunately, she scants the contributions of German Jews to the intellectual history of Judaism in Germany, but this is a minor limitation in a book which provides not only a fine introduction to its subject but visual delights even for those already familiar with it.
Long the preserve of Jewish historians, German Jewry has recently gained the attention of non-Jewish historians as well. Among the most novel contributions has been that of Dietz Bering, a German linguist by training. His newly-translated book (first published in German in 1987) serves as a historical refutation of the adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”
Until the early 19th century, most Jews in Central Europe did not have surnames; they were known to one another by their given names and by their patronymics (as, indeed, Jews today continue to be known for religious purposes). It was the modern, bureaucratic state which for administrative reasons demanded that they take permanent surnames. In Prussia, this happened in 1812 as part of the process by which Jews were admitted to citizenship by the reformist government of the day. Thereafter, they were required to submit any proposed change of surname or first name to the Prussian (and later German) government for approval. Such applications often contained extensive descriptions of the applicant’s plight by reason of his existing name.
Bering has examined these requests for name changes in an effort to plot the course both of Jewish attempts at assimilation and of the changing attitude of Germans toward the prospect of such assimilation. For, far from being a routine matter, a request to transform one’s name was subject to the vicissitudes of bureaucratic policy, which in turn reflected the relative willingness of Germans at various moments to accept the integration of Jews into their society. Both the attempt to change one’s name and the bureaucratic measures adopted to encourage or, especially, frustrate such an attempt, serve the historian as a barometer of anti-Semitism in day-to-day German life.
When first compelled to take surnames, Jews typically adopted either their Hebrew patronymic (such as Moses, Levy, Hirsch, or Isaak) or a name that recalled it (such as Markus in place of Mordechai). Some also changed their first names, again choosing German names with identical initial letters (such as Moritz in place of Moses).
By the second half of the 19th century, however, these names too had become stigmatized as Jewish, and a round of name-changing began in which Jews gave up the principle of consonance in favor of names that would be entirely inconspicuous. Among the most frequently abandoned names, Bering shows, was Isidor, a Greek name that had been adopted by many Jews because of its consonance with the traditional Isaac, Israel, or Itzig. (In a chapter which he has since expanded into a separate book, Bering relates how during the 1920’s Joseph Goebbels, then the Nazi propaganda chief in Berlin, launched an extended campaign against the Jewish chief of police, Bernhard Weiss, by branding him “Isidor.”)
In the earlier part of the century Jews had been for the most part easily recognizable not only by their names but by their distinctive language (Yiddish), clothes, and style of dress. Compelling them to take surnames was part of a larger effort on the part of Prussian reformers to transform the Jews into good—and, ultimately, Christian—Germans. In time, however, as Jews adopted the dress and manners of others, anti-Semites began to complain that they were becoming too inconspicuous, and to press for the maintenance of Jewish distinctiveness—by, among other things, preventing them from “escaping” their Jewish or Jewish-sounding names.
Bering shows how this new and increasingly racial anti-Semitism was incorporated into the practice of the German bureaucracy. As early as the 1830’s, a now-reactionary Prussian government was trying to force Jews to retain their old names. By 1900, even those of Jewish origin who had been baptized were being prevented from changing their Jewish names, while Germans of non-Jewish origin were allowed to change their names if they sounded too “Jewish.”
How many Jews did, in fact, try to change their names? Though anti-Semites, convinced that Jews were trying to disguise their origins, believed the numbers were large, in fact this was not so. Name-changing was perceived by most Jews themselves as a form of abandonment of Jewish identity. Their aversion to the practice accounts for the frequency of this theme in Jewish humor of the period, second only to outright apostasy. That the requests came in by the thousands despite this strong negative sentiment testifies to the pressures felt by Jews with stigmatized names. Thus, one Wolff Itzig of Danzig wrote plaintively to the Ministry of the Interior early in the 20th century, enclosing
with my petition a number of documents from firms which all declared themselves unable to engage my son since his name was offensive.
The laws regulating names were liberalized under the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s, but the old bureaucratic practice was not only resumed but intensified in the Third Reich. The penultimate chapter in the story came in 1938, when Hitler’s National-Socialist government forced all Jews without distinctively Jewish first names to adopt the name Israel for men and Sara for women. Finally, Jews were forced to display their distinctiveness through the yellow star, before being reduced to numbers in order to be reduced to ashes.
The Stigma of Names is based upon painstaking research, and at its best conveys to the reader that peculiar kind of anxious excitement which can come from experiencing the past through its archival remains. The answers a historian finds in archives are only as good as the questions he brings to his research, and Bering’s questions are very good indeed. All the more regrettable, then, that The Stigma of Names is written in a wooden and academic style, often overly abstract and indirect in expression. Although the text of the English version has been slightly abridged (and the notes more so), its style reflects the German original, and the too-literal translation only exacerbates the difficulties of the original. Yet despite its stylistic infelicities, this is still a book worth reading.
In the end, there are no simple lessons for Americans in general, and American Jews in particular, to learn from the history of Jews in Germany. The differences between the political cultures of the two nations are more striking than their similarities. Still, it is worth noting that in recent years even American Jews were reminded of the power of names when a presidential contender complained of his difficulties in “Hymietown.” Those inclined to dismiss the importance of such characterizations ought to consult The Stigma of Names.