The history blog is very pleased to host this guest blog. In it Jeremy Schultz explains the reasons behind his grandfather’s decision to change his Jewish surname at the outset of World War II, and his own recent decision to change his name back again. Jeremy is a psychotherapist, and the brother of Deborah Shaw, Professor of Film and Screen Studies at the University of Portsmouth. Jeremy’s family history illustrates many of the historical issues encountered by our history students in their study of twentieth-century history: the pogroms in Tsarist Russia that drove many Jews to emigrate; racial prejudice during the 1930s against Jews in both Germany and Britain; the attempt by Oswald Mosley to establish Fascism in Britain; the internment of supposed enemy aliens during the war, even where, like the Schultz family, they had plenty of reasons to support Britain and oppose Germany, the complex process of assimilation by immigrant groups into British society. It also shines a light on issues of racism and anti-semitism persisting in Britain today. Jeremy has illustrated his post throughout with links to relevant documents, for those who wish to delve further into the history his story illustrates.
A little over eighty years ago my grandfather changed his name from Israel Shneor Zalman Schultz to Ivor Shaw. This act, immortalised as a statutory notice in the London Gazette of April 1940, exemplifies a process of personal transformation deeply woven into the stories of many immigrant families.
Born in 1907, Israel Shneor Zalman Schultz was the son of Lithuanian and Belorussian Jewish immigrants and was raised in his father Abraham’s overcrowded tailor’s workshop in Whitechapel. By 1940 he had become Ivor Shaw, a respected architect living in St. John’s Wood who would soon rise to the rank of Major serving in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War.
Remarkably, on the same page of that day’s London Gazette, we find Abraham Israeloski choosing the new name Abraham Ingram, Nathan Levy opting for Norman Harrow, Harry Fink becoming Harry Ferguson and Myer Strumanger settling on Myer Stone.
This apparent rush to anglicise classically Ashkenazi Jewish names can be partly explained by the onset of the Second World War and the obvious burden of carrying a German-sounding name, but it also demonstrates the inherent pressure to assimilate into a British society where names, along with accents and educational background are not only signifiers but crucially determinants of social standing and advancement. Although supposedly exempt from internment and restrictions, some 55,000 refugees ‘of the Jewish race’ in Britain were classed at ‘Category C Enemy Aliens’ by the Aliens Department of the Home Office in 1939 with sometimes tragic consequences.
Add to this the growing threat of antisemitic attacks meted out by the Blackshirts of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and it is clear to see why Jews such as my grandfather might wish to rearrange the Germanic or Slavic combinations of consonants and vowels contained in their names into those deemed more acceptable to the anglophone world. As recently as 2019, research findings demonstrated that based on their names alone, British citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send, on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts.
Those Jews still living in Germany in the 1930s were afforded no such freedom over their own identity. In a chilling foretaste of what was yet to befall European Jews, a law was passed in August 1938 under Nazi Germany. The ‘Executive Order on the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names’ mandated German Jews bearing first names of ‘non-Jewish’ origin to adopt an additional name: ‘Israel’ for men and ‘Sara’ for women on official documents. So the very name that my grandfather was free to change in 1940 was being forcibly added to the passports of his German counterparts.
The fact that Israel Schultz was born in London’s East End at all, and not an Eastern European shtetl was due to the migration of his father, my great-grandfather Abraham Schultz. Born in 1882, Abraham was only 14 when shortly after his bar mitzvah, he travelled over 200 miles from his birthplace of Meritz (present-day Merkinė) in Lithuania across the border to Latvia. At Riga harbour he was hidden on a ship bound for Hull in the north-east of England and greeted upon arrival by two maternal uncles who brought him to his new home in the East End of London.
We can only imagine what drove Abraham’s family to uproot their 13 year-old son from his Lithuanian community and send him across the Baltic Sea to seek a new life in London, but the treatment of Jews in the Pale of Settlement under Tsar Alexander III of Russia is likely to have played a major part in this decision. In 1881, a year before Abraham was born, unfounded rumours of Jewish involvement in the recent assassination of Alexander II unleashed a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment in the shape of violent pogroms, and legislation was enacted in the ‘May Laws’ that imposed severe restrictions on Jews’ rights to live and work freely. Tellingly, in 1893, the ‘Law Concerning the Names’ was enacted, forbidding Jews from adopting Christian names and dictating that they must use their birth names in all official dealings. Consider also that the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Russian army to serve in ‘Cantonist units’ for a minimum of 25 years had only been abolished in 1856. The Schultz family of Meritz would have had every reason to fear that such a policy would be revived, given Alexander III’s hostility to the Jews.
In all, some two million Jews left the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1920, with the vast majority settling in the United States and Argentina, a smaller number emigrating to Palestine and around 200,000 reaching the UK. Prior to the Second World War the Jews who had remained in Meritz comprised around 350 families, but under the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, their presence in the town was obliterated in a single day. On September 10th 1941, 854 Jewish men, women and children were shot in the ditch that they had been forced to dig in a small pine grove beyond the town’s Jewish cemetery, thus ending over 400 years of continued history in Meritz.
Growing up in London in the 1970s and 80s and named Jeremy Shaw, I became aware of the ordinariness of my surname. I mixed with a circle of friends whose more German-sounding Ashkenazi Jewish names hinted at a depth of heritage that mine lacked. I was at the same time envious of these more exotic-sounding names and yet relieved by the illusion of protection afforded by the Britishness of mine, revealing the conflict at the heart of my, and I suspect many 2nd or 3rd generation British Jews’ identity. I was somehow both ashamed and proud of my Jewish identity. Even as children, my friends and I would comically refer to each other’s names in an exaggerated German accent, a complex act simultaneously identifying with the aggressors who would other us, while acknowledging our difference and heritage with a degree of pride.
In the course of my work today as a psychodynamically-informed counsellor, I often ask my clients about their names. Thinking together about how their name was chosen, and by whom, reveals important information about their family of origin, such as who they ‘belong’ to or who holds the power in the family system. We also explore what expectations or fantasies that choice of name might carry; I am curious about how my client has responded consciously or unconsciously to these pressures and how such family narratives may have influenced their identity, relationships or sense of themselves in the world. Never is this more relevant than for my trans and non-binary clients for whom the rejection of their birth name and the choice of a new name is not just enormously empowering but a matter of psychological or even physical survival.
Applying this mode of enquiry to my own name, it became clear to me that Shaw had served its purpose; a borrowed name that obscured rather than celebrated the family narrative of relocation and creative transformation. Defiant in the face of a resurgence of antisemitism in the UK, and confronted further by the gloomy shadows cast by Brexit, I felt the irresistible pull of my Old World roots. And so in 2021, reversing that decision made by grandfather over 80 years earlier, I changed my name back to Schultz.