Rezension über:

Johannes Czakai: Nochems neue Namen. Die Juden Galiziens und der Bukowina und die Einführung deutscher Vor- und Familiennamen 1772-1820 (= Hamburger Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Juden; Bd. 55), Göttingen: Wallstein 2021, 560 S., 10 s/w-Abb., zahlr. Tbl., ISBN 978-3-8353-5017-5, EUR 58,00
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Rezension von:
Jutta Faehndrich
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Christoph Schutte
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Jutta Faehndrich: Rezension von: Johannes Czakai: Nochems neue Namen. Die Juden Galiziens und der Bukowina und die Einführung deutscher Vor- und Familiennamen 1772-1820, Göttingen: Wallstein 2021, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 4 [15.04.2024], URL:

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Johannes Czakai: Nochems neue Namen

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Histories of migration and family are often told alongside captivating tales. Unfortunately, these narratives are not always rooted in factual accuracy, such as the widely popular but incorrect belief that immigrants' names were changed at Ellis Island. Disentangling and debunking these narratives is no easy feat. Johannes Czakai dedicates his book to such a legendary topic - the assignment of surnames to the Jews of Galicia. In the Habsburg era, hundreds of thousands of former Polish-Lithuanian Jews received German surnames from the 1780s onwards. The common tale is that an anti-Semitic authority assigned derogatory names, or romantic ornamental names when presented with a bribe. This tale has been widespread, from Karl Emil Franzos Namensstudien (1880) to the old Jewish joke: "When Moshe comes home from the authorities, his wife asks: 'And, what is our name?' to which he answers: 'Schweißloch' [sweat hole]. His wife, horrified: 'For heaven's sake, didn't you bribe the officials?' - 'I did!,' replies her weary husband, 'that w alone cost me a fortune!'" [1] (Note that the German words for "sweat" and "feces" are only a w apart.)

The straightforward study not only deconstructs this legend, but, using an impressive amount of sources from the paper-mad Habsburg bureaucracy, takes a deep dive into the administrative processes and its agents, including the subjects being named. The resulting study portrays the transformation of Jewish life in Galicia in the first fifty years of the Habsburg period (1772-1820), based on the introduction of fixed first and family names in Bukovina, Western and Eastern Galicia, where this process happened differently and in several phases.

The book is told along the historical person of a small trader from Lemberg (L'viv, Lwów) who had four different names in seventeen years and whose life and afterlife the author has reconstructed skillfully. Nochem, who gave the book its title - the Yiddish form of Nahum, a prophet of the Hebrew Bible - was renamed Nochem Bilker in 1784 from his unknown (traditional) name. In 1787, when the administration Germanized names that sounded too Yiddish, he became "Nochem Waltstein". In 1802, it was again decided that this sounded too similar to the noble family of Waldstein, and he was renamed "Nochem Balstiner". Finally, on his deathbed in 1820, he was wrongly registered as "Nochem Boldstirer".

Yet in the expanding Habsburg Empire, names were only a minor component of an official control and recordkeeping of the newly acquired population. As the author shows, a fixed surname had previously been of little relevance even in the Christian majority; the measure was therefore not explicitly aimed at Jews. The naming act, usually coinciding with a conscription, was supposed to create a specific body of knowledge about the local population. Previously, Jews were subjected to high taxation through their respective communities as legal entities. However, individual taxation necessitated the clear identification of each subject, resulting in a duplication of the individual on paper (164).

In Galicia, the process of naming differed from Prussia, where it was part of the emancipation of the Jews (414), or Bohemia, also under Habsburg rule, where it was sometimes met with resistance from rabbis (419). A Galician peculiarity was that the choice of German surnames in 1787 arose from an order of the Court Chancellery demanding German first names. The local Galician authorities misinterpreted this as German surnames. For the officials, German was a bracket to hold the polyglot and multi-ethnic empire together. Rather than being cultural chauvinists, they considered it the only modern administrative language (223).

Other regional and historical patterns become apparent as well. In Western Galicia's second naming phase from 1787, compound names that are considered stereotypically Jewish today were most frequent, such as Wiesenthal, Schönberg, or Rubinstein, with components from the so-called three kingdoms of nature (animals, minerals and plants). Yiddish-sounding names and family names from toponyms (Posener, Kalischer) were later subject to change, as were names resembling a noble family or perceived as indecent.

It was not until 1804 that records of old and new names were drawn up - as the new names made it difficult to reference the past, for example, in the question of historical liquor privileges (propination). Ironically, making the population legible by naming had also partially blinded the administration, as evidenced by the myriad of requests for Jewish communities to verify their identities.

Last but not least, the author can prove that the legend of derogatory names invented in Habsburg back offices is largely fictitious. In reality, naming commissions almost always consisted of representatives of the authorities and the Jewish self-government, mostly scribes of the Kahal (Jewish communities), and the head of household was present. Bribery for pleasant names or the deliberate assignment of humiliating names was not substantiated by the records. Names that sound pejorative often originated in personal nicknames or harmless concepts that are no longer recognizable as such today.

A masterpiece is the finding that a single Habsburg official by the name of Johann Fidelis Erggelet created a significant proportion of Jewish surnames in Bukovina inspired by names, toponyms, and other terms from his home region in the Black Forest. As Erggelet was sympathetic to the Jewish population, it is likely that he intended to make the Jewish and Christian populations sound more alike and the Jews thus less identifiable as a minority.

Nochem has what it takes to become a standard work. Beyond its excellent knowledge of source material, Yiddish and Hebrew, the study also sheds new light on names of historical figures such as Dov Ber of Bolechow (Ber Birkenthal) or the family of the L'viv book printer Judith Rosanes, who, it turns out, was only supposedly Sephardic. The book's name index is therefore also invaluable for genealogists.

A translation into English will hopefully follow, as research on Jewish Galicia is mostly international today.


[1] Žaneta Dvoř áková: Jewish Anecdotes as a Mirror of Naming Practice. Personal Names of Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, in: International Conference on Onomastics "Name and Naming". Multiculturalism in Onomastics, ed. by Oliviu Felecan / Alina Bugheşiu, Cluj-Napoca 2022, pages 71-82, here page 74, fn. 9,

Jutta Faehndrich