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Slave Names

I just can't live down the umlaut.


by David Holzel

In the heyday of the Black Power movement, activists threw off what they angrily dismissed as their slave names, the surnames that defined their identities and which their white oppressors had conferred on their ancestors.

Seeking an authentic Afro-American identity, they adopted African names. Or, if they threw off their oppressors' Christian religion and embraced Islam, they took Arabic names.

I found myself turning this arcane bit of modern history over in my mind as I watched "Schindler's List." Aroused to fury by the murder of most of my family and one-third of my people, I ached for revenge.

And in the dark of the movie theater, with not a real-life Nazi in sight, I channeled my anger to the six letters of German origin that have defined me all my life. Holzel.

My slave name.

As the brothers and sisters did so scornfully in the 1960s and '70s, I wanted to take my slave name, crush it in my fist and fling it in the face of my people's oppressors.

It's an odd name, Holzel. A Germanic umlaut crowned the "o" when my father arrived in New York from Poland in 1935. Heltzl it was pronounced. That little diacritical mark disappeared rather quickly, but my family has struggled with this mysterious name since.

The Holzels hail from Sambor  (more), a little town in Galicia, a region that fell to the Austrians when Poland was carved out of existence in the 1700s. This piece of history goes a long way to explain why my ancestors took a German name.

It was a time when the empires of Europe were trying to push into the modern age. Austria, Prussia and Russia eliminated Poland in three partitions, and swallowed millions of Jews in the process. They needed a rational system to register all these people for the purposes of census, taxation and conscription.

"You can't do that if everyone says `I am the son of Yankel,' " says Seanley Bergman, librarian of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York.

The solution was to oblige the Jews to take surnames. "All three nations made Jews buy their names," Mr. Bergman tells me. "So if you invested money in your name, you tried to do your best."

Some names were patronymic, such as Jacobson or Isaacson. Others geographic, Bachrach (a town in Germany) or Mintz (from Mainz, Germany). Still others came from occupations -- Schneider (tailor), Braverman (brewer) and Kramer (merchant).

And Holzel? The root is from the German for "wood" or "lumber." "Because they didn't have the right to buy land, Jews were involved in the trade of timber, wheat and furs," Mr. Bergman says.

The first Holzel may not have been in the timber business, but perhaps lived in an area where wood was traded, he adds.

  The Shoah has sealed my imagination in such a way that I can do nothing but spin the dark nightmare.
I have long entertained the fantasy of the oppressor confirming the slave name on my Holzel progenitor. I see the registrar as an 18th-century version of the monicled Nazi, gleefully entering the despised name in a ledger and sealing it with a sadistic thump of a giant ink stamp.

The reality was probably more banal. But the Shoah has sealed my imagination in such a way that I can do nothing but spin the dark nightmare.

I have often thought of changing my name. Especially when I lived in Israel, I thought of Hebraicizing Holzel to its near equivalent, Ya'ari.

I have not done so, partly because this beautiful name contains two letters -- the ayin and the resh -- that I cannot pronounce well.

But the truth is I've grown used to my slave name, its quirkiness and its murky origins. And I've grown to discover that we are each the sum of many identities, many names. None defines us absolutely. I am both Holzel and Ya'ari. And many others.

But this still leaves me shaking my fist at the screen as I watch my people debased and murdered in "Schindler's List." What of my fury? Who will answer for this genocide? And how will murder be avenged?



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