The Name Finder (Extract)

21markus (photo credit: Yad Vashem)
(photo credit: Yad Vashem)
Extract of an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A non-Jewish postman from Berlin is the unlikely author of an award-winning reference book on German Jewish genealogy Lars Menk's life revolves around names. By day he deals with the names of the living - residents of Berlin to whom he delivers letters. At night he collects the names of Jews who lived in Germany up to the end of the 19th century - and delivers them, too, from oblivion. 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 "Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames," published by Avotaynu, a New Jersey-based leading publisher in the field of Jewish genealogy. 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 book states the etymology and occurrences of each name, from "Aach" (found in three towns in Western Germany since 1784) to "Zyttkowski," derived from either the Polish town Zitkovo near Bialystok or the Polish word "Zydek," for "little Jew," to which the suffix -ski has been added. It covers names in use up to the end of the 19th century (with a few isolated entries up until 1925) in what is today unified Germany as well as the former territories of Prussia that are now part of Poland, Russia and Lithuania. Some entries go back as far as the 14th century, like the name "Astruck" - the first known occurrence of which was in 1300 in Montpellier, France. "The area it covers was the most important origin of Jewish emigration to the U.S. in the 19th century," Menk tells The Report. "Therefore many people use it to find out about their families' history. Some want to learn what happened to the relatives of ancestors who didn't emigrate," explains Menk, adding that he often receives e-mail inquiries from American Jews wondering whether they have distant relatives in Germany. The tome contains tables of the number of Jews in the German provinces, lists of the most common surnames (Meyer and Levy come in first and second) and their development over time, as well as an 85-page list of locales with a Jewish population in the 19th century. There are eight pages of abbreviations of types of names and locations used in the book, which opens with a three-page "how to use" guide and lists some 300 sources and references of the research. Dry as this may sound, the book evokes very personal feelings, both for its users and for the researcher. "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. Baptized at birth and raised as a Protestant, Menk grew up near the Northwestern city of Bremen, where he had no contact with Jews. What prompted him to spend almost a decade in archives and libraries researching Jewish genealogy? "At age 22, I had just given up medical school and went through a deep identity crisis," he recalls. "'Who am I?' I wondered. I wanted to know what legacy my ancestors had left me." Menk's dogged research into his family's past led him to a startling discovery. "In 1990, I detected my Jewish roots, when I found a groom with a Jewish surname on the marriage certificate of an ancestor." Menk's ancestors were herdsmen in the West German Rhineland who had frequent contact with Jewish cattle dealers. He found out that he had a Jewish great-grandmother, Gudula Cahn, a.k.a. Julie Juelich, who lived from 1832 to 1898. This part of his father's family history was later, according to Menk, systematically covered up and hidden from following generations. His grandfather, the last halakhically Jewish member of the family, was certainly not aware of his Jewishness; in 1930, he joined the Nazi stormtroopers. In 1939, he was killed in a motorcycle crash under suspicious circumstances. Family members speculate that his mysterious death may have been connected to his apparent opposition to the Nazis' anti-Jewish policies. The discovery of his Jewish ancestry launched Menk on a new spiritual journey. "When I found out about this heritage, it was like retrieving something lost," he recalls. "Judaism seemed to me like a primary home - exotic like '1001 Nights,' but at the same time very familiar." Extract of an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.