How Nazis used personal names to spawn the Holocaust

In order to identify and hunt them down during the Holocaust, Nazi authorities declared that all Jews must only bear names selected from a sanctioned list. University of Cologne professor Iman Nick has spent years studying these naming tactics — and their frightening similarities to the world we live in today.

Before the infamous Yellow Star, Nazi authorities forced all Jews to only bear names from a sanctioned list

Using first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors and secret Nazi documents, professor Iman Nick reveals how personal names were used to fulfil Hitler's genocidal vision — and connects how naming can be weaponized in our own day. (Shutterstock)

Our names tell a lot about who we are, but for Jewish people living in Nazi Germany, the name you bore could mean the difference between life and death.

In the 1930s, Nazi authorities instituted new naming policies that compelled all Jews to only bear names that were selected from a list sanctioned by the Nazi government.

For the Nazis, this naming system was an effective way to pinpoint the Jewish population for its campaign of wide-spread discrimination, deportation and extermination. 

University of Cologne professor Iman Nick has spent years studying these names, and she says there are some frightening connections between those tactics, and ones we're seeing in Germany — and other parts of the world today.

"I can't really think of a country on the planet where we are not finding circles of organized hatred beginning to take action in ways that we would not have conceived possible again," Nick told Ideas host Nahlah Ayed, adding she has been targeted by neo-Nazis.

"If there's one thing that I have had the privilege of learning from the survivors that I have worked with, it is you can never, ever, say it will never happen because the imagination of the murderers almost always exceeds that of their potential victims."

Nazi Germany 

Jews living in Germany in the early 1930s knew that in order to avoid being identified and targeted, they would have to assimilate linguistically by changing their names.

So, on August 18, 1938, the Nazi party stated that all children who were of Jewish faith — then considered to be a race within Nazi Germany — would only be permitted to carry a set of names prescribed by the Nazi state. There were 185 names for male children, and 91 names for female children.

"The one thing that all people had was a personal name," said Nick. "You could manipulate that tag that all people in society had, so that you could easily segregate one set of people from another."

Jewish refugee children play on the grounds of Dane Court Farm, a school and refuge, in 1939. In the 30's when Nazi authorities created a sanctioned naming list, there were 185 names allowed for male children and 91 for female children. The origin of the selected names come from the Old Testament. (Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

And in cases where Jews had forenames other than those allowed, as of the first of January 1939, they were required to adopt a second forename. For men, that name was 'Israel,' and for women, 'Sarah.' Any accidental failure to comply would result in a fine and/or one month in prison, and outright refusal to comply could result in six months in prison for each infraction. 

The system was rigged against the Jewish population from the start, as was the case of a young mother of Jewish faith who was living in Hamburg when the Nazis took over. She had just given birth and decided to follow the rules by sending a letter to the officials of her insurance company to inform them that her son had been born and would be taking the names 'Denny' and 'Israel,' as required.

When they received the letter, the insurance company noticed that the mother had forgotten to use the name 'Sarah' when signing off and promptly contacted the Gestapo in Hamburg. The family was called in to the Gestapo headquarters, tortured, deported, and then later reported to have been murdered; all on the basis of a mother trying to register the name of her newborn son and forgetting to use the compulsory name 'Sarah.'

Companies in Germany also turned over the names of all of their Jewish workers to the Gestapo, as did clubs, clinics, schools, hospitals and senior citizens homes. 

A smuggled photograph from Nazi occupied Warsaw showing Jews in the streets wearing their compulsory armbands. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Fear of the 'other'

According to Nick, that fear of the "other" that permeated through Nazi Germany has persisted and still continues today. 

While living in Germany as an exchange student in 1991, she saw it first-hand when a group of neo-Nazis descended on the dormitory building she was living in, looking specifically for foreigners to kill. 

"They entered the building, and they did something that was very interesting and frightening," said Nick.

"They simply went to the mailboxes and they looked for foreign-sounding names. Then they buzzed the button, walked calmly up the stairs, rang the doorbell, and [when] a young woman answered the door ... they beat her nearly to death." 

The day after the attack, Nick realized her name had been right next to that of the woman who had been attacked. And when she studied the other names on the mailboxes, she realized how easily the same thing could have happened to her. 

"My last name had identified me as being someone who perhaps wasn't German," she said.

Iman Nick, a sociolinguist at the University of Cologne, says her own name prompted her interest in onomastics — the scientific study of names. Growing up, Iman (which means faith) wanted a popular name. Her mother said she chose her name so she would be connected to her roots. (Daniel Roland/AFP via Getty Images)

The incident had a large impact on Nick's sense of belonging in the country, both as an American and a Black woman. 

"As a person of colour and being a woman, I felt extra exposure," she said.

"But I also felt a sense of anger, of righteous anger, a feeling that I should not be put into a position where I have to hide such a fundamental part of my identity and the other people didn't have to hide that part of their identity."

Systematically targeting names 

For Nick, who is also an expert in forensic onomastics — the scientific study of personal names — there are clear parallels between the naming tactics used in Nazi Germany, and the othering of certain marginalized groups today. 

Take, for instance, a request by the U.S. government and the Department of Homeland Security for the motel chain Motel 6, to turn over the names of thousands of guests between 2015 and 2017. 

According to reports, ICE agents would collect these guests lists and then check them for Latino-sounding names. Those names would then be run through a database to see whether or not those people had entered the U.S. illegally. 

Motel 6 has agreed to pay a $12 million settlement after the state of Washington sued the chain for providing customer information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The people bearing those names were detained and interrogated, and many of them eventually deported, until the practice was discovered by investigative journalists in Arizona.

"What's frightening about this is that it's the same kind of technique that we have seen over and over and over again," said Nick. "And that is the systematic use of personal data such as people's names in order to target them for in many cases, what I'm simply going to [call] questionable treatment."

It's a strategy, Nick says, that wasn't originated by the Nazis, but was certainly perfected by them.

"And unfortunately, as I always say to my students today, imagine if Hitler had had the internet."

Our names and our safety

When it comes to names and how they can be used today, Nick says we can never be too careful.

"I think we should be incredibly concerned," she said. "I know that people often [think]: 'Well, in relation to the other kinds of information that's available on the internet, why should I worry about giving my personal name?'"

But she says names are crucially important because of how insensitive we are to the ways that information can be extracted from them. 

And when it comes to choosing our names, Nick says the onus should never be on people with names that appear or sound "different" to assimilate. 

"Let us put the onus of responsibility and the focus of our energy on those that would threaten our safety rather than making us conform in this futile hope that we can avoid victimization by altering our behaviour. We need to alter the behaviour of the perpetrator, not of the potential victim."

* This episode was produced by Tayo Bero.

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