24 January 2008

Germany: Delivering the Jewish names

I was delighted to see The Jerusalem Report feature a story on Lars Menk, author of the award-winning book, "Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames," published by Avotaynu

A non-Jewish postman from Berlin, Menk's life is names. During the day, he delivers the mail; by night he collects the names of German Jews through the end of the 19th century.

A mailman by profession and a genealogist by passion, 46-year-old Menk doesn't know how many letters he has delivered to Berlin residents over the years. But he can tell you the exact number of family names he has uncovered: 13,093 are listed in his award-winning tome ...

It took Menk, who has no formal training in history or genealogy, nine years or around 10,000 hours to compile the 800-page reference work, which won the prestigious Obermayer German Jewish History Award in 2007, and an honorable mention in the National Jewish Book Award.

The dictionary contains the etymology and occurrences of each name, covering names through the 1899 for the most part - some through 1925. The territory is today's unified Germany, and former Prussian territory that is now Poland, Russia and Lithuania. Some 14th century names - such as Astruck - has its first known use in Montpellier, France in the 14th century.

In the story, Menk says the geographic area was an important source of Jewish emigration to America. He says he often receives inquiries from American Jews asking about possible distant relatives in Germany.

The top two most common surnames are Meyer and Levy, and there are tables of numbers of Jews in German provinces, an 85-page list of geographic locations with a Jewish population, list of abbreviations of types of names and locations, as well as a guide as to how to use the book, and a bibliograph of some 300 sources and references.

Baptized as a baby and raised a Protestant, he grew up near Bremen with no Jewish contact.

"It was a labor of love," says Menk, a tall, slim, bespectacled man, who smiles often. "It is a wonderful experience to bring back to life what seems to be dead in the past," he says, sitting at a small desk in the living room of his Berlin apartment, where he does his research and writing.

At 22, an identity crisis spurred his ancestral research and, to his surprise, "I found a groom with a Jewish surname on the marriage certificate of an ancestor."

His West German Rhineland herdsmen ancestors had contact with Jewish cattle dealers, and he learned he also had a Jewish great-grandmother Gudula Cahn (Julie Juelich, 1832-1898), and that this part of his father's ancestry was hidden from future generations.

The last halakhically Jewish family member - his grandfather - was not aware, says Menk, of his roots when he joined the Nazi stormtroopers in 1930.

His discovery set him on a spiritual journey: "When I found out about this heritage, it was like retrieving something lost."

Read more here. To purchase the book, go to Avotaynu Publishers.

The name Astruck, found by Menk, is a common enough Sephardic name (Astruch, today Astruga and other variations) in Catalunya, Spain, found in the records of Girona and Barcelona and listed frequently in many Sephardic research books as both a given and family name. Following the 1391 anti-Jewish riots across Spain - and earlier times of persecution - many Sephardic Jews went north into France and Germany, and later into other countries, including Eastern Europe, so finding Astruck (by any spelling) is reasonable.

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