Some Jews in France wish to revert to family names

As Jeremie Fazel stood to pay his respects at his adored grandfather’s grave, something felt profoundly wrong.

“The name on the headstone was Benjamin Fazel. It was my grandfather’s name but not the one he was born with. For me, it was very symbolic because I felt like it wasn’t him,” the 32-year-old Parisian said recently. “It was then I decided I had to change my name.”

You can call Fazel many things: He is French, the grandson and son of Jewish emigres from Poland, a documentary maker and a film editor. He minds none of these. But he would rather not be called Fazel.

“It doesn’t feel right,” he said. “It says nothing about my family or our history.”

Fazel — or as he would prefer to be known, Fajnzylber — is one of an increasing number of French Jews trying to persuade France’s State Council to allow them to return to the family names their parents and grandparents gave up when they arrived here after World War II.

A portion of the French civil code adopted after the war stipulates that family names are “immutable” and must be continued. The civil code allows “foreign sounding” names to be changed to those considered more French-like, but declares the “impossibility” of reverting.

In the 1940s and ‘50s hundreds of thousands of Jews, many still reeling from the Holocaust, arrived in France. Mainly poor and stateless, and fearful of latent anti-Semitism in a country from which 76,000 Jews were dispatched to concentration camps, most were just grateful to be allowed to stay.

There was no legal obligation for them to drop their family names, but they often were encouraged to do so. Many people agreed to new French-sounding names even when the new names bore little relation to the ones they had passed down through generations: So the Rozenkopfs became the Rosents; the Frankensteins the Franiers; the Wolkowiczs the Volcots.

And Benjamin Fajnzylber became Benjamin Fazel.

The Yiddish-speaking Fajnzylber family had fled Poland in 1940 after the Nazi invasion, and Benjamin arrived in France in 1952 after a decadelong meander through the Soviet Union, to Israel and Italy.

He was the only member of his family to have survived the war and his dream was to go to America. Unable to obtain the necessary visa, he settled in France.

“When he was naturalized, my grandfather was asked if he wanted to French-ify his name, and Fazel was suggested. He didn’t really agree but was under the impression there was no real choice,” Jeremie Fazel says.

“He never complained. Remember these were people who, after what they had been through, just wanted to live in peace. They would do anything to blend in.”

When Celine Masson’s family — originally surnamed Hassan — arrived in eastern France in the 1960s among a wave of Jewish emigres from Tunisia, French officials suggested making the name sound more French-sounding. Again, while not forced to change, Celine Masson’s father agreed to do so.

“There was a lot of anti-Semitism in those days,” said Masson, a senior university lecturer in psychoanalysis. “Even after changing it there were people who stopped buying from his furniture store when they discovered he was Jewish.

“I was born a Masson, but the name means nothing,” she said. “It carries no history, it says nothing about my family, my roots, where we came from.”

Masson has set up an organization called La Force du Nom (The Strength of the Name) with French lawyer Nathalie Felzenszwalbe — whose family retained its name — representing more than 30 French Jews who want to change their names to reflect family origins.

Last month the organization submitted its first requests for reversions of names to the State Council, which has said it will deal with them one by one.

Masson and Felzenszwalbe have been told there is no chance of repealing the law, but they still say that the challenge remains worthwhile. Although only about 30 French Jews have demanded the right of name reversion, and other ethnic groups such as France’s large African immigrant community have made similar applications en masse, La Force du Nom believes just one decision in its favor could result in a flood of cases.

“Everyone needs to know where they come from. A family’s name is part of the compass in life,” Fazel said. “It was different in the ‘50s. How can it be in this day and age that we cannot have a foreign sounding name … in a country with a president called Sarkozy?”

Willsher is a special correspondent.