In my “The ‘Road to Heaven’ at Sobibor,” I mentioned that my great-great-grandfather, Alexander Levy, who lived in the Netherlands—Holland in those days—around the turn of the 18th century, changed his surname (or family name) from Levy to de Wind.
Why did he do that?
To be frank, I don’t know why he changed his last name. I don’t think that it was for religious or political reasons, as I will point out later.
But it may or may not be a coincidence that in the very same year, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Dutch people, did in fact change their names or assumed “proper” family names.
You see, in 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte annexed Holland, along with Switzerland and the Hanseatic cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen.
Holland had already, since 1806, been under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, King Louis (Lodewijk) Bonaparte. However, not happy with his brother’s rather benevolent and permissive rule of Holland , and certainly unhappy with his lack of serious enforcement of the ban on trade and shipping between Holland and his arch-enemy, Britain, Napoleon abolished the Kingdom of Holland in 1810, and a few months later annexed it and placed it under direct French rule.
While Napoleon pretty much plundered Holland and eventually left it in economic shambles, both he and his brother instituted civil reforms, codes and laws that would form the basis for much of the Netherlands’ future civil law.
Louis established a monetary system using the Guilder, along with a penal law code.
Other laws were applied, modeled on French law.
Also, the last quarter of the 18th century was a period of modernization and standardization throughout the European world. Standardized spelling came into effect and gave rise to standardization of dictionaries, encyclopedias and names.
name handwriting was on the wall.
On August 18, 1811, Napoleon decreed the mandatory registration of births, deaths and marriages, and compulsory military service.
According to the decree, in part:
Those of our subjects of the Departments of the former Holland… who until now have not had fixed surnames and given names, must adopt them during the year, and declare them before the officers of the civil registry… where they reside…
Those having known surnames… will be excepted. They who wish to conserve their names will nevertheless be required to declare them.
While the decree seems quite clear, the story about the Dutch having to adopt, invent or change family names gets a little murky.
Some historians and journalists claim that there is a lot of hype and myth surrounding this subject.
For example, Leendert Brouwer says that at the beginning of the 19th century most Dutch “inhabitants already had a family name,” and that in practice, limited use was made of the opportunity to establish a new family name. And that, in the big cities, it was mainly Jewish people who used the registration system as mandatory, but additional to the Jewish system.
Finally, Brouwer claims that “funny names” such as Naaktgeboren and Poepjes (see below) were already in existence long before Napoleonic times.
With these caveats in mind, the following is “my story,” assembled from bits and pieces I remember from my young days in the Netherlands and from what I have gathered from my own research.
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Prior to the Napoleonic era in Holland, family names were not legally required.
According to Genealogist Rick van der Wielen, the Dutch traditionally used a “patronymic” system in which “the father’s first name became the first son’s last name, and the other kids got the left over names from the grandfather, great grandfather and so on. Gradually in the 1600s, people began to turn the patronymic name into modern last names: Jan Hendricksen (Jan the son of Hendrick) gave his son the surname Hendricksen instead of Jansen. A suffix was often added to indicate ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of.’ For example, Jan, son of Hendrick would be written Jan Hendricks, Jan Hendrickse or Jan Hendricksen.”
There was a similar system for women’s names.
Other family names were related to personal qualities, personal appearance, towns or regions of origin, occupation, etc.
And thousands of Dutch people had no “proper” family names at all.
As a result of the establishment of mandatory and official registration of births, marriages and deaths and for purposes of the census, taxation, conscription, etc., the Dutch who did not have “fixed surnames and given names” were required to adopt a fixed, permanent family name.
Many patronymics did become permanent family names—such as today’s very common Peters, Jansen, Willems, Hansen, etc.
Consistent with the Dutch independent mind, pragmatism, stubbornness, and yes, sense of humor, thousands upon thousands of Dutch did not take Napoleon seriously. Perhaps, they even wanted to rebel in their own way, or to mock Napoleon and his system—play a practical joke on the French occupiers.
Addditionally, they looked at this “name system” as a temporary law that would be repealed once Napoleon left Holland.
So, they deliberately adopted and registered family names that are funny, ridiculous, confusing, and sometimes even lewd and offensive-sounding—many of the latter supposedly at the expense of Napoleon and the French occupiers.
• Suikerbuik (Sugar belly)
• Spring in ‘t Veld (Jump in the Field)
• Uiekruier (Onion-crier)
• Naaktgeboren (Born naked)
• Poepjes (Little sh*t)
• Schooier (Beggar, bum, tramp)
• Scheefnek (Crooked-neck)
• Piest ([he] urinates)
• Zeldenthuis (Hardly ever at home)
• Rotmensen (Rotten people)
Also, De Keizer (The Emperor) —ostensibly to mock Napoleon himself.
And my own family name, de Wind (the wind)
The selection of weird and funny names may have been a joke that backfired. The civil registration system introduced by Napoleon has “stuck” to this day—and so have most of those silly, funny, strange Dutch family names.
As to the change of my own family name, from Levy to de Wind, it may have been related to this requirement, it may have been purely coincidental, or it may have been for a number of other reasons.
As I mentioned earlier, I do not think it was for religious or political reasons, because, at least in Holland, neither Louis Bonaparte nor Napoleon had policies in the Kingdom of Holland that would motivate Jewish people to change or disguise their Jewish family names.
After all, one of the effects of Napoleon’s conquests was to spread the ideas embodied in France’s 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” that guaranteed freedom of religion and free exercise of worship, consistent with public order. In the Kingdom of Holland, Jews received the same rights as other citizens.
Nevertheless, some historical accounts portray Napoleon’s attitude towards Jews to be ambivalent, politically motivated, and even devious.
For example, Historian Rabbi Berel Wein in “Triumph of Survival,” claims that “Napoleon’s outward tolerance and fairness toward Jews was actually based upon his grand plan to have them disappear entirely by means of total assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion.”
Others call Napoleon’s policies and reforms, such as his convening of The “Grand Sanhedrin”* a ruse, a political contrivance, and empty promises.
There were also some “hiccups.”
Under pressure from his “allies” at the time, such as the Czar of Russia, Napoleon rolled back some of the reforms in 1808, but reinstated them later.
In general, most historians speak positively about the impact of Napoleon’s policies on Jews.
According to Wikipedia,
Napoleon’s indirect influence on the fate of the Jews was even more powerful than any of the decrees recorded in his name. By breaking up the feudal trammels of mid-Europe and introducing the equality of the French Revolution he effected more for Jewish emancipation than had been accomplished during the three preceding centuries.
And, with respect to the subject of family names, albeit in other countries :
When Jews were selecting surnames, some of them are said to have expressed their gratitude by taking the name of “Schöntheil,” a translation of “Bonaparte,” and legends grew up about Napoleon’s activity in the Jewish ghettos. Primo Levi said that the Italian Jews often chose Napoleone as their given name to recognize their liberator.
Changing Levy to de Wind for the purpose of expressing gratitude or admiration to the Emperor doesn’t make sense either.
Hopefully, a Levy or de Wind who happens to be reading this may have an answer.
In the meantime, it has been quite interesting to look into some of the history behind those “funny” Dutch names.
As a side note:
My stepfather (a Dutchman) also has an interesting family name: Kortekaas, which means “short cheese.”
However, this family name started out as Coppe, it subsequently morphed into Cortecaes, and finally ended up as Kortekaas, long before Napoleon occupied the Netherlands and gave rise to all those even funnier Dutch names.
* The Grand Sanhedrin was a Jewish high court convened by Napoleon I to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by the Assembly of Notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government. The name was chosen to imply that the Grand Sanhedrin had the authority of the original Sanhedrin that had been the main legislative and judicial body of the Jewish people in classical and late antiquity.