The Value of Names; Between Ethiopian Jews and European Jews

Traveling to Auschwitz two months ago made me think about the loss of life during the Holocaust, but more than that, the European loss of the culture and a wealthy heritage of the European Jewry.

I went to Auschwitz as part of an educational seminar of the program I am attending this year in Germany (Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste e.V.). In this seminar, each one of the participants had to give a short presentation about a topic that relates to the 20th century. somehow it was very obvious for me to talk about an issue that disturbs me for a very long time now; Jewish Ashkenazi surnames and identity of Holocaust victims and survivors. I knew it wouldn’t be something easy to talk about, maybe even provocative or controversial, and I was not sure how my colleagues would react to that. Therefore, I decided to open my presentation by reading to my friends the poem “Each of us Has a Name” (By Zelda), and the most significants lines for me in that matter:

“Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love”

This poem, which we are used to read in Israel, mostly on the Holocaust memorial day, suddenly received a new meaning for me.

Names and the meaning of them, always interested me particularly. My Ethiopian background might have a huge impact on that, since in the Ethiopian culture, it is customary to give meaningful names. In addition, in the Ethiopian culture (as is the case in ancient Judaism and various tribal cultures), names generally change with every generation – each man and woman takes their fathers name, and women, even after they were married, remained with their father’s name. This tradition remains till today, thanks to an ancient strong culture and due to the fact (or luck), that Ethiopian Jews were not granted under the authority of the Europeans. Therefore, for me, a name (and surname), is an integral part of a person’s identity and gives a sense of belonging. After all, this is all that is being left from us and our parents after we leave this world.

However, unfortunately, in Europe of 18th century, the authorities forced the local Jews to take random last names so that they could be taxed, in attempt to build modern nation-states. This action symbolizes for me more than anything, the beginning of demolishing the European Jewish heritage, because long before the massive killing of human beings, there was a massive killing of identities.

During my presentation, I couldn’t stop thinking of all those identities that remain lost, buried in massive graves, and are being commemorated after names that were given to them by their enemies. I was immersed in the thought of this loss so deeply, thinking “what are people names for, if not to be the memory to hold onto?”

I must say, as an outsider, my first impression of Jewish life in Europe today, would be the thought that there is not much going on. Since I am mostly following the international, or even Jewish media, I would mostly come across reports about antisemitism or advertised report of massive Aliyah to Israel (as a direct result of that). Unfortunately, I would usually come across very little information about life itself.

Nevertheless, with all that being said, after nearly a year of living in Germany, and slowly being exposed to Jewish life in Europe, meeting new people, especially younger generation (it is obviously very different in each country), I know that centuries of cultural and physical oppression did not break the spirit, and I am very excited to find more and more great initiatives for reviving and developing the European Jewish heritage and culture.

About the Author
Tikva Sendeke is from Israel. She is a blogger and a social activist involved in the fields of minorities rights, multiculturalism, preserving Jewish Ethiopian heritage and Jewish life.