I was interested to read this week of the death of the Viznitzer Rebbe Mordechai Hager in New York at the grand age of 95, for I have a distant (although unconfirmed) connection to the Viznitzer rabbis. My great-great-great grandfather, Akiva Hager (pictured), was in some way related to the Hager rabbis of Viznitz, but even back in the 19th century, apparently no-one in the family could actually put their finger on the blood link that connected them to the esteemed rabbis. Nevertheless, the family was always aware of how distinguished the Hager name was and sharing the name meant that they commanded respect among the Jewish community in which they lived.
The Viznitzer rabbis were one of the most famous and revered dynasties in Hassidic Judaism. The sect was founded in the mid-1800s by Rabbi Menachem Mendl Hager in Viznitz (Vyzhnytsia in Ukrainian), a village in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains now in southwest Ukraine. Mordechai Hager was born in 1922, in Oradea, Romania, known in Yiddish as Grosswardein. His father, Chaim Meir Hager, was the fourth grand rabbi of Viznitz, and moved the dynasty to Grosswardein during the First World War. The Viznitz rabbinical dynasty today has congregations in Israel, London and Montreal as well as New York City and state.
Despite sharing the revered family name of Hager, my forefathers made the decision to drop the name in order to save my great-great-great grandfather Akiva from conscription. At that time, in the mid-19th century, Jews were a particular target of Tsar Nicholas I’s military recruiting officers, known in Yiddish as ‘happers’. The happers were supposed to take boys aged between 12 and 18, but often recruited (some would say kidnapped) younger children, some as young as eight or nine, to fulfil their quotas, bundling them into uniforms meant for youths twice their age.
Military service lasted a full 25 years, but most did not survive that long. It took only days for the Jewishness of the new recruits to be squeezed out of them like water from a sponge. They were barred from following the kosher laws or keeping the Sabbath, or even from speaking Yiddish. Any boy who insisted on holding fast to the dietary laws – refusing to eat pork or soup made with lard – was beaten with a rod or deprived of drinking water.
And however firm their Jewish resolve, the boys were unable to avoid marching or performing drills on the Sabbath. At the end of a ten hour march, having eaten nothing but dry bread, the young recruits would arrive exhausted at their destination and were often forced to kneel until they agreed to convert to the Orthodox Christian faith. If they continued to refuse, they had to kneel all night. Some boys would take their own lives rather than agree to convert. Others would be beaten and starved and died from fever or exposure before ever setting eyes on a battlefield.
As well as changing Akiva’s name to avoid such a fate, his family refused to let him attend school or any other formal institution – it was well known that Jewish boys who tried to enrol in a Russian ‘shkole’ could find themselves offered up as recruits for the army. So Akiva avoided conscription but never learned to read or write.
By the time Akiva was in his late teens, Tsar Nicholas upped the conscription rate still further as Russia headed towards the Crimean War. Wealthier families tried to bribe the conscription officers to stop them from taking their sons, but there was no guarantee of success. Akiva’s family didn’t have the money to pay a bribe and instead they sent him to the dentist to have all his teeth extracted, a procedure that must have been horribly painful in the days before anaesthetic, and altered his appearance for life. But the loss of his teeth was successful in keeping Akiva out of the army, and had that not been the case, I probably wouldn’t be here today to tell his story.
Russia and the Crimea question
The West is once again engaging in reprisals against Russia and considering wider sanctions in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The moves come four years after the European Union and United States first imposed sanctions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
On 16 March 2014, Crimea held a referendum on its status, and two days later it became a constituent part of Russia. The referendum was declared to have achieved an overwhelming majority, with more than 80% in favour of annexation by Russia. But no Western observers were able to monitor the ballot and it attracted widespread criticism. Turnout figures in particular were thought to have been massively inflated, with the number of citizens actually voting for a Russian takeover possibly closer to the 30% mark. Both Kiev and the leaders of the Tatar community urged their citizens to boycott the vote.
The annexation of Crimea, while shocking from a legal and human-rights perspective, should not have surprised informed observers. It followed months of unrest in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that had spread across the country, tipping the situation from protest to civil war. The dismissal of a compromise deal on 21 February by the leaders of the revolt, the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the formation of a so-called ‘unity’ government in fact made up predominantly of anti-Russian and nationalist members, were factors in the increasing radicalism taking hold in Ukraine.
Across the country, statues of Lenin were toppled, provoking a counter-mobilisation in Russian-speaking areas such as Crimea and the Donbas in the east of the country. Sections of society opposed to the pro-Western and nationalist forces that had occupied Kiev’s central Maidan, or square, since November began to seize government buildings, copying the tactics of the protesters in Kiev. Armed militants gained quasi-official status, patrolling the streets and providing ‘security’.
Anti-Maidan sentiment was strongest in Crimea and it is remarkable that Russia’s takeover of the region passed so peacefully given the state of confrontation elsewhere in the country.
Crimea’s history as a part of Ukraine was a short one. It was transferred from Russia to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1954, at a time when major water courses were being developed from Ukraine to irrigate Crimea’s arid, desert landscape with water from the River Dnieper – bringing Crimea under the Ukrainian republic’s jurisdiction at that time made logistical sense.
At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Crimea was treated as a special case, being home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Sevastopol was recognised as having ‘all-union significance’ and therefore would normally have reverted to Russia when Ukraine gained its independence, given Russia’s role as the ‘continuer state’ of the Soviet Union, assuming the former country’s obligations and privileges.
At the time Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, did not pursue the idea assuming, one imagines, that the relationship between the two countries would continue as before under the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States.
The events of early 2014 prompted Russian fears that it would be evicted from Sevastopol. On 28 February, soldiers took control of the local airport at Simferopol, under the pretext of protecting Russians in Crimea from Ukrainian nationalism. Although Russia officially denied sending in forces, armed military seized control of strategic areas. As late as 4 March, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied any intention of annexing Crimea, although he stated that residents should have the right to determine the region’s status by means of a referendum.
The status of Sevastopol was just one of the factors behind the Russian annexation. The Kiev protests began after President Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013. With much of the population of western Ukraine clamouring for closer ties with the West, Putin feared that Russia would continue to lose status and influence in a region it had once called its own. Already most of the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe that had severed ties with the Soviet Union were fully-fledged members of the EU and NATO, including the three Baltic States that had been part of the USSR.
If this were not enough for Putin to bear, the EU and NATO appeared to be creeping even closer, right into his backyard. Ukraine’s history as the birthplace of modern Russia dating back to medieval Kievan Rus’ and the two nations’ close – even intertwining – ties throughout their history, make Ukraine a special case. “We are not simply close neighbours, but we are one people,” Putin said. “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Putin perceived that he was being repeatedly snubbed by the US and EU in their pursuit of closer ties with Ukraine, and as the West has repeatedly learnt, Hell hath no fury like the Russian president scorned. The Western powers should have paid more attention to that great diplomat of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger, who said, “Far too often the Ukraine issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the east or west. But if it is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other, it should function as a bridge between them. The West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
I recently came across a surprisingly interesting series of articles about Jewish surnames from the Russian Empire. It turns out that there’s much more to this dry-sounding subject than meets the eye.
In Eastern Europe, Jews acquired their last names between the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th, following a series of laws forcing them to adopt hereditary names. Before that, the only Jews with surnames were those belonging to certain rabbinical dynasties. For the rest of us, our ancestors would have been known by their name and patronymic, their father’s name, as in Abraham ben Moses or Nathan ben Israel.
Surnames across the Russian Empire have their roots in several different sources. Those derived from towns or cities in western Germany, such as Auerbach, Epstein, Ginzburg, Halpern, Landau and Schapiro were particularly prestigious, passed down through rabbinical families living in western Germany during the 15th and 16th centuries before they or their descendants migrated eastwards.
The high frequency of the name Epstein, for example, results from its old age; the earliest reference, from Frankfurt, dates from 1392, and the migration of a rabbi bearing this name to Eastern Europe. It is testimony to the prestige of his lineage rather than a large number of migrants from the town of Eppstein.
Unusually, many were derived from women’s first names, such Belkin, Dvorkin, Malkin, and Rivkin – derived from Belka (Beyle), Dvorka (Deborah), Malka, and Rivka – far more than prevailed outside the Russian Empire. This may be partly because it was often Jewish women who were outwardly facing in areas like commerce and the marketplace, while their menfolk studied in Yeshiva or worked from the home as craftsmen. Many women would have been better known to the inhabitants of a locality than their husbands.
Additionally, a tradition already existed in Eastern Europe before the 19th century of giving men ‘nicknames’ based on female first names, for example, the famous Polish rabbis Samuel Eidels (1555-1631) and Joel Sirkes (1561-1640), both ending in the Yiddish possessive suffix -s. Numerous names of the community leaders in Lviv found in Polish documents from the 1740s–1770s belong to the same category: Bonis, Cymeles, Daches, Fayglis, Menkes, Minceles, Mizes, and Nechles. This naming tradition could have had a direct influence on the names adopted at the turn of the 18th-19th centuries in the same area, as well as in southern Ukraine and Bessarabia.
Just how common these matronymic names were once Jews were required by law to adopt surnames varies from place to place. Surnames based on female names were particularly common in the Mogilev province in eastern Belorussia, where they covered 30-40 percent of the Jewish population. Almost all of them were created by using the East Slavic possessive suffix –in. In many other areas the percentage is only in single figures.
The naming process was administered by the Jewish administration, the Kahal, and it is likely that local Kahal authorities were largely responsible for choosing a model for the distribution of surnames, some choosing to follow matronymic lines, others opting for other patterns.
In the Novogrudok district of Minsk province, one third of Jews received names derived from male given names and for another third surnames were drawn from local place names by adding the suffix -sky. In a number of districts of Volhynia and Podolia, artificial surnames with attractive meanings like Goldberg ‘gold mountain’, Rosenthal ‘valley of roses’, and Silberstein ‘silver stone’ covered about one third of all names, while one quarter of names indicated the occupations of their first bearers. In the area southeast to Kiev, two thirds of Jews received names ending in -sky based on local towns.
Less likely to be true, according to Alexander Beider, a linguist and expert on the subject of Jewish names, is the common perception that Jews paid money for the best names – the attractive ones like the above-mentioned Goldstein, Rosenthal or Silberberg. The widespread nature of attractive-sounding names, and the relative scarcity of derogatory ones supposedly assigned to those too poor to pay a bribe, would appear to debunk this myth. In addition, Beider says, the existence of a list of names and their bribe price across a wide area covering different jurisdictions is simply not feasible.
This post is based on a series of articles in The Forward by Alexander Beider, a linguist and the author of reference books about Jewish names and the history of Yiddish.
For more see: https://forward.com/opinion/395078/why-do-so-many-jewish-last-names-come-from-women/d.com/opinion/395078/why-do-so-many-jewish-last-names-come-from-women/
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.