Jan 2004 Journal

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Pike to Wolf - the fauna of Jewish surnames

In changing his name to Bernard Howard, the pre-war Romanian immigrant Bernat Hecht unconsciously imitated the Hungarian Communist leader Matyas Rakosi. The latter, born Matyas Schwarz, had adopted a nom de guerre which sounded both authentically Magyar and aristocratic (Prince Rakoczy, Hungary's most famous soldier, inspired Berlioz's famous Rakoczy March). And just as Schwarz could literally have been translated as Nagy, so Hecht could have been rendered as Pike. As for Howard, in addition to sounding impeccably Anglo-Saxon, it also conveyed a faintly aristocratic aura. Castle Howard is, after all, one of the most illustrious stately homes in the land - up there alongside Chatsworth and Blenheim Palace.

The name Hecht, by contrast, has high cachet in Hollywood, where Ben Hecht scripted the hugely successful Front Page and other box office hits, which leads us neatly to American-descended Oliver Letwin, Michael Howard's Shadow Chancellor. Letwin apparently means Latvian - though the 'official' Yiddish term for someone hailing from the Baltic is, of course, Litvak. (Movie buffs may remember Anatole Litvak, director of Confessions of a Nazi Spy.) I must say that I find Letwin's ancestral homeland more confidence-inspiring than Michael Howard's. After all, pace Lawson, Brittan and Rifkind, we have had plenty of experience of old Estonians - rather than Etonians - in Tory cabinet posts, whereas the only Romanian-descended Jewish politician strutting her stuff on the world stage before Michael Howard was the deplorable Anna Pauker.

One of the interesting features of the recent upheavals in the upper Tory echelons has been the open intervention of purse-proud backers threatening to withhold donations unless certain changes were made. In contemporary Russia the situation is different in the sense that those who wield financial power, i.e. the 'oligarchs', seem to be the only force capable of mounting an opposition - via privately-owned stations and newspapers - to an increasingly autocratic President Putin. Consequently, the most prominent 'fat cats' find themselves either in exile or in jail. One oligarch who is not being fingered by the ex-KGB agents in Putin's entourage is Roman Abramovich, who prefers pouring his spare cash into English football clubs rather than Russian TV stations. I wonder how many Chelsea fans are aware of the fact that they owe the - limited - upswing in their club's fortunes to the whims of a maverick multi-millionaire whose surname literally means 'son of Abraham'.

Russians traditionally have tripartite names: a forename, a patronymic and a surname - with the patronymic derived from their father's forename (e.g. Osip Emilievich Mandelshtam). In the early 1990s nascent Russian democracy faced a threat from the right-wing demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose impact was somewhat blunted by the curious fact - revealed via his patronymic Volfovitch - that his father had been a Jew.

The current US Deputy Secretary of Defence happens to be Paul Wolfowitz, a presumably Russian-descended Jew. His surname has given our US-baiting media a useful 'hook' for describing the Bush administration as a 'pack of wolves.' For some reason, Wolf is both a popular Jewish forename (e.g. Wolf Mankowitz) and a fairly wide-spread surname. Literary 'wolves' include - apart from the jüdisch-versippte Virginia Woolf - the satirical poet Humbert Wolfe and the playwright Friedrich Wolff of Professor Mamlock fame. Though the last-named work is today totally forgotten, Friedrich's Russian-born son Mischa Wolff left a more lasting imprint. As head of the Stasi, he was the most resourceful director of Soviet intelligence operations in Western Europe, and entered the annals of Cold War history by engineering the downfall of Chancellor Willy Brandt (which he subsequently bitterly regretted).
Richard Grunberger

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