23 July 2010

France: What's in a [real] name?

Following World War II, Jewish immigrants to France were encouraged to change their names. Today, they want to reclaim their original surnames.

A Los Angeles Times story detailed this interesting occurrence.

In the post-war French Civil Code, a section indicates that surnames are "immutable" and must be continued. It allows foreign-sounding names to be changed to those more "French-like," but also states it is impossible to revert [to the original].

Following the war, during the 1940s-50s, many Jews - among them many Holocaust refugees - arrived in France. Most were poor and stateless and also feared anti-Semitism in that country which had sent so many to concentration camps.

According to the story,
There was no legal obligation for them to drop their family names, but they often were encouraged to do so. Many people agreed to new French-sounding names even when the new names bore little relation to the ones they had passed down through generations: So the Rozenkopfs became the Rosents; the Frankensteins the Franiers; the Wolkowiczs the Volcots.And Benjamin Fajnzylber became Benjamin Fazel.
On the face of it, it isn't much different than what happened in America and England, as immigrants anglicized their names to make them easier to say and to spell, to better "fit in" to their new home.

The one difference is that the immigrants to France were encouraged - if not officially required -to change their names. After what many refugees had been through, it wasn't something they wanted to fight.

The story focuses on Jeremie Fazel - a descendant of Benjamin Fajnzylber of Poland - and Celine Masson - whose original name is Hassan of Tunisia.

Says Fazel:

"It doesn't feel right," he said. "It says nothing about my family or our history."
Says Masson:

"I was born a Masson, but the name means nothing," she said. "It carries no history, it says nothing about my family, my roots, where we came from."

Masson has set up an organization called La Force du Nom (The Strength of the Name) with French lawyer Nathalie Felzenszwalbe — whose family retained its name — representing more than 30 French Jews who want to change their names to reflect family origins.

Last month the organization submitted its first requests for reversions of names to the State Council, which has said it will deal with them one by one.
Athough only about 30 families have requested the name reversion, change is in the air.

"Everyone needs to know where they come from. A family's name is part of the compass in life," Fazel said.
Read the complete story at the link above.

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