What's in a name?

The importance of names and their meanings

The writer standing in front of the house in Leipzig from which her family fled on Kristallnacht. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer standing in front of the house in Leipzig from which her family fled on Kristallnacht.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anecdote One:
Aaron Eliyahu Ha-Cohen
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a popular reference to Juliet’s argument in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. Maintaining that despite stemming from the House of Capulet, and Romeo from her family’s rival House of Montague, they can still form a harmonious union.
However, even though I grew up in the same house with my father and indeed mother and brother, at one point harmony was not to be. It so happened that when my husband Neville and I produced our second son, a storm brewed. Not when he was born, even though it was on a cold February morning in one of England’s northern towns, namely Sheffield of steel industry fame. No, it came about when and I argued with my father. He was adamant that our baby boy be named after his well respected father-in-law, Reb Berisch Langerman, tragically perished at Nazi hands.
“After all, you called your first-born Simon after you father-in-law’s father.”
“That’s a name acceptable in England,” my husband, Neville, chimed in, insulted that his Hungarian grandfather’s name be compared to an outlandish Polish one of my grandfathers. Protesting that Berisch is not a suitable name for a boy growing up in England did not persuade my father. He would not have it.
“Berisch was good enough for my father-in-law, of blessed memory. You may not know, but he loved me, and I respected this saintly man. For my grandson it should be more than good enough!”
In Poland it was indeed an acceptable and fairly common name based on the Yiddish language spoken by most of the Jewish community. Often that name was coupled with another, namely Dov-Berisch. Actually, Dov means bear and Berisch means bear-like. 
Aaron, my six-foot father, with a broad grin when not seriously contemplating his hand at poker or analysing his accounts, had not lost any of his Polish accent. He retained the gumption which allowed him, a self-made man, to take us from a rented house to our large, double fronted London home opposite a grassy school playing field. Like his own predecessor namesake, he was a Cohen – of the priestly tribe. Giving his regular priestly blessings intoned angelically in the synagogue, prayer shawl aloft, he also understandably had the traditionally “short fuse” attributed to this special breed descended from Mount Sinai. Yes! Aaron was stubborn to the core. A characteristic which undoubtedly contributed to his survival. Departing his parents‘ simple home near Lowitz, aged seventeen, he left them in Poland and made for Germany. There, in the town of Leipzig, becoming a most successful fur trader, his word was his bond, his good name, and law.
Still, our son had been born on the Jewish calendar’s new year for trees. What therefore could be more appropriate for Neville and me, staunch Zionists planning our emigration to Israel, to call our son Ilan meaning tree, a name popular there. The seven days leading up to his religiously prescribed circumcision were rapidly passing. Our baby son’s Brit was imminent and my father persisted in trying to elicit from us his name - supposed to be secret until that special day.
Finally, “It’s going to be Ilan,” I bravely faltered.
“Ilan? Vot kinda name’s that?”
“A lovely Israeli name – and meanwhile also good in England because all know the name Alan and Ilan is similar”
“No reason. If not Berisch – no Brit with me there!”
Hasty consultations – my usually placid, gentle Neville put his foot down.
“No son of mine will be called Berisch.” I admit I had to agree.
“Let’s think”! Suddenly “I know,” he said. “The Hebrew for Berisch – a bear, is Dov!”
“I like it” I said excitedly. “So even though registered in the English Registry as Ilan we can add Dov and call him Dov. My father will be so pleased.”
“Daddy” I said. “We have a wonderful translation for Berisch into English. Berisch means bear, doesn’t it?“
“Well, bear in Hebrew is Dov... a well-known name in Israel.”
“Well, you know we hope to live there one day?”
“Ha! One day...!”
“Well, Neville and I have decided to call him Dov Ilan!”
“Vot?! Not Berisch?”
 “Well Daddy, it’s the same, and it will honor your father-in-law, the grandfather I never knew. It will honour his memory and bravery. We will never forget his tragic end on the death march. Nor will we forget the two little grandchildren, Nuita and Zoosha, who together with him perished due to starvation. He will be remembered lovingly when we say the name, Dov.”
“Call him vot you like – but the Brit will not see me there.”
And, sadly, it did not.
It hurt, yes, it did. After all he was my son’s grandfather. How proud it would have made us to have him present, especially when I had never known any of my grandparents. They had been left elderly and helpless each to a varied and ghastly fate perpetrated by the Nazis.
Years later I began to understand that there was more than meets the eye to the fact that my father did not attend Dov Ilan’s brit. And how “survival is the name of the game” was a saying as relevant as another, namely being “a self-made man.” Such sayings, which slip easily off the tongue, have crucial relevance for many.  
In practice for my father they signified hours of arduous work. The 1950’s-’60’s saw glamorous women, and sometimes indeed iconic men, wrapped in a variety of fur coats, stoles, jackets, matching hats and muffs. Unlike the later 1990’s when fur trapping was frowned on, those in the fur trade made a good living with a remarkable series of options. Some cut furs into shapes, others sewed them into coats, some treated the skins, stretching them into a much larger thinner size. The fur industry was buzzing in The City of London’s enclave near St. Paul’s Cathedral. My father was what was called a skin merchant. An expert in sorting skins of varying qualities. He knew silky flat broad tail from curly, coarser Persian lamb; delicate baby from mature mink, a good red fox fur from a grey, less bushy, type. Most importantly, he knew a bargain when he saw one. And where was that? In Russia! Off he’d fly to Leningrad – now St. Petersburg (Vot’s in a name?!).
Early in the morning, before most were up, he’d taxi to London’s airport flying off with large old brown suitcases to the fur auctions. They were held in what was called the “Messe”- auction house. His native Polish, converting easily to Russian, stood him in good stead with the auctioneers. Having inspected piles of varying furs prior to the auction, they responded favorably to his bids on the best bundles.
In Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night the lovelorn Orsino declaims ”If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
Aaron was not a musician by any means. For him language of many kinds was the food of love! And to the contrary, it never died! He communicated as none of the other traders who flew to the annual Leningrad fur auction from afar did. He would bring officials a bottle of Schnaps – a delicacy in those Communist days – as was a box of cigarettes! He and several of his fur trading friends always stayed in the same hotel. There, eventually, officials designated a special locked cupboard for the Sabbath morning Kiddush goodies my father brought in his suitcase; jars of herring, crackers, pickles and of course whiskey – they called Bromfen – no doubt attributable to the Bronfman family! It owed its initial fame to Samuel Bronfman (1889–1971), who made a fortune in the alcoholic distilled beverage business during American prohibition through the family’s Seagram Company. So, what’s in a name?
At that time, my father also made contact with Jewish families living under the suffocating Communist regime. They invited him to secretly held bar mitzvah celebrations of young 13-year-old lads, and weddings under huppa canopies smuggled into darkly curtained front rooms. He brought Hebrew books, as well priceless and valuable gifts which families could sell – stockings and biro pens!
Friendly Russian officials, ostensibly non-Jewish, arrived annually in London for transactions at the Hudson Bay Fur Company’s international shipping office. They had to eat lunch somewhere. Where? None other than in my father’s by now spacious office. There he and his secretary prepared delicacies this brawny, jocular group adored. Herring of an amazing variety; lax – known as smoked salmon – radishes, potato salad, egg crackers, black bread and, of course, a little schnapps to wash it all down!  
Dov Ilan was born February 1960! Before 1963 the annual Leningrad auction was held, of course, in February. To miss the auction was to miss your livelihood. Each year to the depth of the freezing Russian winter my father would sally forth. Apart from taking special gifts he went armed with invaluable thick, warm gatkes (long Johns!) matching vests and a Davy Crockett style fur hat atop his baldish head.    
Years later it was clear to us that he could not, heaven forbid, play a kind of Russian Roulette with his livelihood.  Indeed, when Zaide Aaron returned from his trip bearing untold gifts for his newly born grandson, Dov Ilan, we knew all was forgiven – even though not forgotten!
So where was my mother, Regina, in all this? Regina, translated as Queen, was indeed regally stalwart. A true survivor too, she would always provide the comfort food my father expected after his very long days in the City. A few sticks of fresh celery, chicken soup, boiled chicken, potatoes and carrots, stewed apple comport topped off by a glass of lemon tea. There was a bit of a furor when one day, for a change, she dared to make vegetable soup.
“Vegetable soup again?” my father stormed.
Still, she was pleased and I was delighted when sometimes my father would ask me
“Pessale, you vant come with me to Garlkeel?”
This meant a ride in London’s underground tube, changing at King’s Cross main line station, and off in another tube to Manor House station. Blissful chugging and churning of wheels and stomach until we emerged into the dusty concrete jungle of an area near the famed St. Paul’s Cathedral, namely, The City. Trotting along, holding his hand, this four year old could only occupy herself with drawing doodles on paper at a table in his original tiny office. But came one o’clock a distraction. Lunch!
“You vant eat something ?”
What a question! I’d long forgotten my cornflakes and milk. So down the several flights of concrete stairs, round the corner, up a steep step and onto a high stool behind a marbled counter.
“A roll mit putter for me and a roll mit putter for my Tochter.”
The white coated baldish, shortish, man smiled as he plonked two plates in front of us. I thought my roll, soft crumbly bread like on the inside and glossy brown on the outside, could have done with jam rather than butter. But still, it was a bit bigger than my father’s. “Pessale”, he said, “I used to sit eating my role on a bench in Poland, and even gave crumbs to the birds”.
Lucky birds, I thought, but is that IT? I’d hoped, at the beginning, for at least a biscuit. Is that ALL? Not quite. My father had a hot drink and I had some juice. Those were among my favorite, if somewhat ravenous excursions.
Then one day, already five, I had gone to school and learned to read. School holidays came along, and my relieved mother sort of smiled as I trotted along to Garlikeel showing off in my new lace up brown bootees and black baggy tent shaped coat with three big buttons. Emerging from stations whose names I now managed to read we walked as always towards my father’s office. There, as we rounded the corner, was clearly written in black and white the name of the street. Garlick Hill.
“Daddy” I said, puzzled. “It’s not Garlkeel. It’s Garlick Hill.”
“Yes, dat’s vot I said” he said, “Garlkeel”
Well, a name by any other....
You had to hand it to them, my parents I mean. Coming from completely different backgrounds and life experiences before they met, still it was thanks to my grandmother – my mother’s mother Malka – that their marriage deal was clinched. She managed to catch up with my father who had turned heel from the drawing room and was finally leaving my Prima Donna mother in the lurch after one of her “performances.”
“Aaron,” said Malka, panting along the path as he was heading towards the street.
“You love my daughter, and she loves you.” He stopped in his tracks.
True he thought, looking heavenwards, hearing his intended’s high soprano voice singing his loved piece from the Countess Maritza operetta. She had studied voice at the Dresden Music Conservatoire, as well as piano. In his ears echoed her lustrous voice. He heard the fascinating melody she would sing to him, accompanying herself on the piano, “Komm, Zigány, Komm, Zigány.” Come my Gypsy, Come my Gypsy.
Turning his gaze back to earth he heard, “Neither of you is so young, she’s 27 already and has refused so many before you, and you are thirty three and also could not make up your mind.” Also true, he thought.
“My beloved husband Reb Berisch and I are old. The war is coming and we know not what will become of us. At least if you and Regina are together you have a chance.”
As my star-struck father told me, he heard a voice beckoning, “Komm Aaron, Komm Aaron.” Together with his future mother-in-law he returned to the house. There, in the midst of the magnificent drawing room, brocade chairs, crystal chandeliers, he found my mother, still standing stock still, absorbing the loss of her suitor. As he spoke, she melted with gratitude.
“Gina,” he said, “I love you. And also, I know that you love me”
“Yes, Aaron.”
“We have to be together, for better or worse. You are going to marry me.”
“Yes, Aaron.”
And so, in 1936 she did. The wedding picture of this handsome, glamorous couple, belies the fact that their marriage took place in a small hall with few guests and war’s storm clouds gathering above their huppa. Not long afterwards, they raced together through Europe several times, leaving their parents and siblings, most to their tragic Nazi-created fate.
Miraculously reaching Britain’s shores they created a family in England and finally, in their late eighties, made aliyah to join us in Israel.
Anecdote Two.
Elise Regina - Esther Rachel
“Gina,” was what my father called his bride to be then. Many more times he’d call her Ginchu. And she would sometimes fondly call him Aronelya. It took me a long time to realise she’d combined his names, Aaron Eliyahu. And even longer to learn that my mother’s Hebrew names were Esther Rachel. This realisation came about when I wrote to the Queen of England requesting she send my parents her customary telegram congratulating a couple on celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Off went my letter and back came the reply. Send their wedding certificate and you will receive the telegram. Fine, I thought.
“Mummy, where is your wedding certificate?”
 “You mean the religious one?”
“No. The one you and Daddy received from the Registrar in the Registry office of the Town Hall in Dresden where you had your civil marriage registered.”
“Oh, that!  It was lost when we raced from Antwerp to Dunkirk. It fell out of my hand bag together with many other documents.”
What to do? How to give my parents the pleasure I was sure they would feel on receiving a telegram from none other than the Queen. Thus began a journey to Germany’s Dresden where my parents were married. Dresden is the capital city of the German state of Saxony and its second most populous city, after Leipzig, where I was born.
Neville and I flew off on our mission to locate my parents’ wedding certificate uppermost in our minds. Still, we could not but stroll along Dresden’s delightful terrace, originally a defensive rampart, and gaze raptly through shop windows boasting figurines and bowls made of the famously intricate Dresden china. Its promenade, overlooking the River Elbe, earned a nickname “The Balcony of Europe” catering to the fleet of 19th-century paddleboats floating along the lazy river. Standing there as history rippled past was a heady experience.
Hard to believe that Dresden is still known for its destruction in World War II when American and British planes firebombed the city on the night of February 13, 1945. It was not so hard to believe when we saw the still destroyed Frauenkirche, or “Church of Our Lady,” caged opposite the Hilton Hotel where we stayed. Once the symbol and soul of Dresden, when completed in 1743, this was Germany’s tallest Protestant church. For a generation it lay there, collapsed, a pile of rubble. We were there in 1998, fifty three years after it had been bombed – still in a huge cage with numbered concrete parts ready to be resurrected. Only in 2005,  helped by international donations, was it rebuilt and finally reopened to the public.
Even harder to believe was the sight, on one of the enormous round columns, facing visitors who walked into the Hilton Hotel’s lobby. A huge poster with blue back ground depicting a Candelabra, obviously the famed Israeli hanukkia. Across this, in giant German script, which being my mother tongue I could still understand, “Israel is Celebrating its 50th Anniversary.”
The concierge of the Dresden Hilton where we were staying, whose name happened to be Sierge, welcomed us from behind the reception desk. Holding tightly onto it onto it, fearing I’d come to the wrong country or lost my senses, I asked,
“What is that poster about?”  
“Ah, yes. You see I am in charge of events in the hotel. As part of my professional training I am sent to visit all the Hilton Hotels including the one in Jerusalem. I saw in amazement what Israel has achieved during its 50 year history, building up a modern bustling state with stores, sky scrapers, and renovating ruins. Here in Dresden we have not even managed to rebuild our beloved Frauenkirche 53 years after it was bombed. I know what happened to the Jewish people at the hand of the Nazis was a tragedy. But even though I was not directly responsible, it is up to me to try and make amends. So here we celebrate Israel’s 50th anniversary with music, fireworks and a barbecue. It will be next Tuesday. You are invited.”
Quite speechless after his long speech we explained we had come from Israel  to try and locate my parents’ wedding certificate, that we would go to the City Hall on Monday, and be leaving on that Tuesday.
Sierge, filled with admiration, we, as Israelis, were recipients of his largesse. How? He explained that the City Hall was officially closed on Mondays. However, he had a colleague in just that department. He would contact her and see if she might be persuaded to open up for us. Which he did – and she did! Up to the third echoing floor we trooped; up massive and eroded stairs, knocking on an equally massive wooden carved door, number 303, as instructed. From within, clipped footsteps clopped towards it, creaking it open.
Much older than her concierge colleague, we were separated opposite her gleaming mahogany desk. She listened alertly, noting names, place and dates 15th November 1936. “Ach Yah. Sixty-one years ago. I’ll see what I can find.”
It must have been a full 20 minutes later that she returned with a huge leather-bound volume almost the size of her desk. Opening it arduously she began leafing through paper thin pages, fluttering one by one toward the center of the pile.
“Ach yah. Here it is. Elise Regina Langerman to Aaron Elias Markiewicz. Kucke here – is this correct?”
Going round to her side of the desk, we looked here, and there it was. Furthermore, in addition to Elise Regina, the document also contained my mother’s Hebrew names, Esther Rachel. Hardly believing our eyes, yet here it was. Their wedding certificate among hundreds of equally carefully recorded documents in painstaking copper hand script.
“Could we possibly have a photocopy?”
“Ach Yah.  It will cost you 17 Deutsche Mark.”
We glared at her eyes through her round-rimmed glasses, speechless. She received our silent message and clip-clopped out. Returning, she said,
“Here you are. I even made two copies of the document for you. I shall put them in a large envelope to protect them. Yes?”
Receiving it we exchanged harrowing glances. Miss Clip Clop knew full well how it was the original had been lost in the first place, as had so many others by Jews fleeing their homes. Unspoken, she dared not ask whether the bride and groom were also “lost.” She clip-clopped her way to creak open the giant door. Not a single word was exchanged across our shared experience.
So what about my mother’s receipt of the telegram when it finally arrived?
Sitting on her favorite armchair, as usual reading with a magnifying glass, I said.
“Mummy, look! You and Daddy have a telegram from the Queen.”
“What for?”
“Well, it’s congratulations for your 62nd (by that time) wedding anniversary.”
“From the Queen? Well, she’s also only a woman!!”
My parents finally reached their precious Medinat Yisrael (State of Israel). Enjoying their Netanya apartment, relaxing on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, my father, Aaron Eliyahu Ha-Cohen, reached the age of 98. My mother Elise Regina (Queen) – Esther Rachel – arrived at the good age of 94. Both had amazingly full faculties until they ascended to their maker, appreciative of every moment they had together.
As for the Queen of England, at the time of my writing she is a mere 94 years of age.  Though she is the oldest monarch to have reigned in Britain, we wish her many more years on the throne in good health. Long Live the Queen!■