French Jews win right to choose their own names

After a historically charged legal fight, Jewish families can revert to their foreign ancestors’ last names

The French Justice Ministry is reviewing name-change applications on a case-by-case basis. (Croquant via Wikipedia)
The French Justice Ministry is reviewing name-change applications on a case-by-case basis. (Croquant via Wikipedia)

PARIS — After decades of denying Jews the right to change their French last names to their original Jewish ones, the French Ministry of Justice recently revised its position.

Fearful of anti-Semitism, many French Jews decided to adopt French surnames in the late 1940s and ’50s.

“Even though the French administration never forced them to adopt less foreign-sounding names, they were highly encouraged to do so,” says Céline Masson, a lecturer in psychoanalysis at Université Paris-Diderot and a co-founder of La Force du Nom (“The Strength of the Name”), a Paris-based organization that lobbies for the right to reclaim old names.

Nearly 70 years after World War II, many descendants of both Holocaust survivors and Jews from North Africa have decided to reconnect with their roots by taking back the names of their ancestors.

French law, however, stipulates that once changed, a last name is considered “immutable.” It also prohibits citizens from reverting to a “foreign-sounding name.”

Céline Masson says changing one's name can be a "trauma." (Courtesy of Céline Masson)
Céline Masson says changing one’s name can be a “trauma.” (Courtesy of Céline Masson)

In 2010, the debate entered the national spotlight when Masson and co-founder Natalie Felzenszwalbe submitted their first name-change requests to the State Council, the relevant government agency.

“We’re talking about a very small minority here,” Masson told The Times of Israel. “So far, we’ve had about 30 cases or so. But in a country where 76,000 Jews were deported [during the Holocaust], it’s bound to be a powerful debate.”

In their applications, both advocates argued that allowing the reversion to previous names constitutes a “symbolic reparation” that France owes its Jewish citizens.

“Reparation has been achieved at every level in France: when Nazi collaborators Klaus Barbie, Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon were brought to justice in the 1980s and 1990s; when President Chirac made his famous 1995 speech and became the first French politician to recognize France’s responsibility in the July 1942 Vel d’Hiv Roundup; and of course financial reparations. What’s missing is the right of name reversion,” Masson said.

Even though she and Felzenszwalbe were initially told the law wouldn’t be repealed, the French Ministry of Justice has revised its policy, adopting a case-by-case approach.

In an op-ed entitled “Stranger to One’s Name,” published in the daily Libération newspaper Feb. 28, 41-year-old David Forest — now renamed Fuks — explained how he was finally allowed to revert to his Polish-born grandfather’s name in October 2012, more than 60 years after the family changed it.

“When I was asked about the origins of my name, even people with the best intentions never failed to ask what my ‘real name’ was,” he wrote. “In fact, I often heard my parents say that our current name wasn’t a ‘real one’.”

“The truth lay within the name we abandoned — the only one that truly said where our family came from and who we were.”

In her 2012 book, “Rendez-nous Nos Noms! Quand des Juifs Revendiquent Leur Identité Perdue” (“Give Back Our Names! When Jews Reclaim Their Lost Identities,” Masson writes that the number of name changes within the French Jewish community peaked between 1945 and 1957 — a total of 2,000 requests.

Originally from Tunisia, Masson’s family — the Hassans — changed its name when it immigrated to France in the ’60s, like many other Sephardic families from Morocco and Algeria.

‘Sometimes family members don’t agree on what their name should be and what it represents’

“My name has been changed, and it’s not difficult to pronounce it,” she wrote. “It is cut off from its history and its original language; it has lost its flavor, its accent.”

In her book, Masson also interviews Tunisian-born Magali Taillé — originally Taieb — whose family emigrated to France at the same time.

“Changing one’s name is like changing jurisdiction,” said Taieb. “Magali Taieb was a young Jewish girl raised in the values of Tunisian society of the 1950s. She stopped growing up in 1970. Magali Taillé was born in the same year and studied in Parisian universities. Between the two, there’s a gap, a distance, a duality, an incompatibility. Until they were finally reconciled.”

Backed by years of experience as a psychoanalyst and her personal history, Masson explains that changing one’s name can represent a “trauma,” especially for younger generations that now want to reconnect with their Jewish roots and family past.

In some cases, certain family members choose to revert to their old Jewish names, while others maintain the newer one.

“Sometimes family members don’t agree on what their name should be and what it represents,” Masson said. “I’ve seen cases where children feel like having a Jewish name, and the parents or the grandparents don’t, or vice versa.”

“This is the kind of problem we didn’t think we would encounter at first,” she continued. “But this is definitely something we ought to analyze more in the years to come. It is yet another interesting aspect of how complex a Jewish identity can be, even today.”

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