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Sep 2003 Journal

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Displaced placenames

'After a lifetime of referring to the place as Leningrad', my friend grumbled, 'I can't get used to calling it St Petersburg.' I tactlessly pointed out that at the time of its birth the city had actually been re-named Petrograd. The Bolsheviks finally renamed it after Lenin and, to emphasise the break with the Tsarist past, they also renamed Yekaterinburg (commemorating Catherine the Great) Sverdlovsk, and Tsaritsyn Stalingrad.

The whirligig of time brought further change: the last-mentioned hero city is now simply Volgograd, and Sverdlovsk has reverted to its original name of Yekaterinburg. The latter change is - to coin a phrase - good for the Jews. Since Yakov Sverdlov was the local Bolshevik commissar who ordered the execution of the Romanovs, the less the Russian public are reminded of his existence, the better.

A Russian town with a far more lighthearted - and tenuous - Jewish connection is Kaliningrad. In its previous incarnation as the capital of East Prussia and coronation city of the Hohenzollern, it was known as Königsberg - which name (minus the umlaut) also happened to be inscribed on Woody Allen's birth certificate. The Woody Allen-Konigsberg nexus underlines the irony of history that Jews have bestowed lustre, or at least widespread name recognition, on several German towns whose inhabitants were for the most part Judeophobes. Berlin, of course, would have been well-known even without help from Irving (or Isaiah), but what would Breslau/Bresslaw have amounted to without Bernie, Bonn without Izzy, Kassel without Sir Ernest and Kissingen without Henry? Seriously, though, which US Supreme Court judge outshone Felix Frankfurter, or which British film-maker Emeric Pressburger?

Mention of the great cineaste touches on another interesting issue - the fact that the average town in Eastern Europe boasted three different names. Pressburg (German) is also known as Bratislava (Slovak) and Poszony (Hungarian); Vilnius (Lithuanian) likewise is Wilna (Russian) and Wilno (Polish). Uniquely, the Austro-Hungarian Lemberg became Lwów in Poland, Litzmannstadt in the Third Reich, and is currently Lviv, capital of West Ukraine.

A similar, but less complex, process of re-naming has been going on in post-colonial Africa. The Congolese capital Leopoldville, named after the Belgian king who was the worst royal slave-driver in history, is nowadays known as Kinshasa; less justifiably Stanleyville, commemorating the intrepid journalist who found Livingstone, has been renamed Kisangani.

Further south, the names of Britain's top Empire-builders have also been erased from the map. Zambia and Zimbabwe have replaced the two states whose names commemorated Cecil Rhodes. Salisbury, the South Rhodesian capital, named for Britain's prime minister in the heyday of Empire, is now called Harare (and is in imminent danger of being dubbed Mugabeville).

Self-designated nation-builders of Mugabe's ilk already existed in the 1930s. One such, President Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, informed the 1938 Evian Conference on Refugees that his country was - uniquely - prepared to accept several thousand German Jewish immigrants (grotesque as it may sound, he wanted 'Aryan-looking' Jews to offset the dark skin of the bulk of the Dominican population). However, the outbreak of war ten months after Evian restricted the immigrants to a few hundred. Sometime later, in the postwar era, the president renamed the capital city San Domingo Ciudad Trujillo as a tribute to himself.

A nation-builder at the opposite end of the spectrum to Mugabe and Trujillo, not only in character but also in the degree of power he could exercise (either over his own people or internationally), was Theodor Herzl. This visionary, imbued with the dream of the rebirth of a people scattered to the four winds, is today most inadequately commemorated. What, after all, is Herzlia, other than a satellite town of Tel Aviv boasting several deluxe hotels flanked by azure swimming pools and verdant golf courses?
Richard Grunberger

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