French Jews now allowed to reclaim their old surnames

Following the decision, a Mr. Bouché will become Mr. Weill while a Mr. Didier will be Mr. Landesman.

Celine Masson_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Celine Masson_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
French citizens who want to return to their former Jewish surnames scored a victory on Wednesday when, for the first time, the Justice Ministry gave them its permission. Following the decision, a Mr. Bouché will become Mr. Weill while a Mr. Didier will be Mr. Landesman.
“Until now we could not go back to our old names,” said Celine Masson, one of the leaders of La Force du Nom, an organization which lobbied the government on their behalf. “But now we have permission for two who have been allowed to go back and there are more to come.”
Jewish surnames can be difficult to pronounce or spell in some languages. Worse, they can expose their bearers to anti-Semitism which is one reason why in France – and many other parts of the world – a long list of Jews, from Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronshtein) to Lenny Bruce (Leonard Alfred Schneider), have had them changed.
“There was the trauma of the Holocaust,” said Masson.
“Many wanted to forget and not have their children go through what they did. But now many people are claiming back their identity.”
But in France those who found a new sense of pride in their Jewish past and wanted to reclaim their heritage hit an obstacle: By law one cannot go back to a name that either they or one of their ancestors asked to change.
La Force du Nom petitioned the Justice Ministry last year to have the law changed expecting an answer no later than October 2010.
“But French bureaucracy and a long jurisprudence process delayed the decision,” said Masson. “But now finally we have succeeded.”
She said 10 other people who want to return to their families’ old surnames are currently on the waiting list, some of whom decided to do so against the wishes of their parents.
“One of them only found out he was Jewish when his grandmother died,” she said.
“He looked at the death certificate and saw her name was different than his. His father was against his changing his name but he said he wanted to pass down the name to his children.”
Curiously, Masson, whose father changed his name from Hasan when he moved to France from North Africa and has dedicated much of her time to fight for the rights of others to change theirs, is not on the waiting list.
“My father would rather I not change it,” she said, “and I wouldn’t like to do it without his permission.”