Back to My Roots
After my grandparents came to America, they changed our name. Decades later, I changed it back—and rediscovered a lost history.
I took a sabbatical at the East-West Center in Honolulu, and the office of Lt. Gov. Benjamin Cayetano was helpful in walking me through the paperwork. Most Americans are immigrants, of course, but it felt somehow suitable to go back to my Polish roots in the Hawaiian melting pot. Fannie, the Chinese woman in the East-West Center in charge of aloha (that’s her real job description), organized a quasi-Chinese ceremony—although we substituted bursting balloons for the more traditional, but much louder, firecrackers.
I changed my name, not so much because I feel Polish (I don’t speak a word) but because I don’t feel German (and I certainly don’t feel like a quail, which is how Wachtel translates). Somehow it feels right. The 19th-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle recognized that a name can shape a life, reflecting, “what mystic influence does it not send inwards, even to the centre.”
Almost as cosmic proof that I chose rightly, odd and pleasant things began to occur. Strangers see my complicated name in a publication and write to me, asking if, just possibly, we might be related. A newly found cousin in Montreal, Ari Sochaczewski, invited me to his son’s bar mitzvah. I told a friend in Basel, Switzerland, about the name change, and she explained that she had a friend, Simon Sochaczewski, also in Basel, with a similar name. We couldn’t possibly be related, I thought, but she spelled his name and it had the same odd concurrence of Slavic consonants. I called him, learned about his service in the Résistance in France. He mentioned a relative who had moved to Brooklyn. “I’m from Brooklyn!” I said, and immediately called Aunt Syd. “Sure, Jack Sachs,” she remembered, explaining that his branch of the family had Anglicized the name rather than changing it completely, as ours had done. I called Simon back and we figured out that we are second cousins, I think (I’m not very good at figuring out these family trees). Right here in Switzerland.
When I’d first decided to make the name change, back in 1992, I called my aunt, who started all this trouble by wanting to go to school nearly a century ago. And that’s when I found out that more than one name had been changed.
She calls herself Syd, and I asked her why. “My name was Sadie,” she explained, “but I never liked that name so I changed it to Syd.”
“But your name isn’t Sadie,” I said. “It’s Sarah. Says so right here on the immigration documents they filled out when you got off the boat at Ellis Island. ‘Sarah. Four years old. Nationality: Russia. Race: Jewish. Final destination: Brooklyn.’ It says here you were ‘illiterate.’ ”
“Oh my,” my then-80-something aunt replied. “If I had known that I never would have changed my name. I rather like the name Sarah, don’t you?”
There are men who leave you for another woman, and there are men who leave you for a man. Then there are those who dump you for God.