Friday, 3 October 2014

My Name Change: A Story about Genocide and Racism

My Name Change: A Story about Genocide and Racism.  

This year marks the 15th anniversary of my decision to change my name from Rhoda Howard to Rhoda Hassmann. I still have to use the clumsy “Howard-Hassmann” for professional reasons, as from 1976 to 1999 I published as Rhoda Howard, but my legal name is just Rhoda Hassmann. Throughout the years, people have occasionally assumed that I changed my name because I married or re-married, but that is not so. I married in 1978 and remain married to the same man, who is named neither Howard nor Hassmann. I changed my name for political reasons.

The story below is a story about genocide and racism, and what it can do to those who escape or survive it, as well as their descendants.  It was published in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on May 24, 2000, p. A20. A colleague from the then University of Western Ontario (now Western University) sent me a message shortly thereafter saying he’d made it an assigned reading in his course on racism.

It’s taken me a long time to decide to post this private story, but I have decided it is a contribution to the literature on memory and genocide, and thus worth the post. I have not made any changes to the original article, although I now know that some details of my father’s escape from Germany may be inaccurate.



The Globe and Mail (Toronto) May 24, 2000 pA20


The certificate of name change arrived on September 2, 1999: I was now Rhoda Hassmann, no longer Rhoda Howard. September 3 was my fifty-first birthday. I spent it at banks, human resources offices, the automobile club.  By the end of the day my new name was secure.

The name I adopted was that of my paternal ancestors. My father, born Helmut Hassmann in Germany, changed his name in Britain to Michael Howard in 1947. Hassmann was a German transliteration of my great-grandfather’s Russian-Jewish name, something like Chazman. My grandfather, born Bruno Hassmann, died “for the Fatherland”, as the memorial in the Jewish graveyard in Leipzig puts it: he was a doctor in the German army during the First World War.  My father was a “half-Jew”, to use Nazi terminology. 

My father escaped from Germany in 1938; the Gestapo was looking for him after he criticized Hitler at a company banquet.  Forged passport, stays in nasty prisons in Yugoslavia and Italy, a fortuitous encounter with a Swiss Quaker who protected him from deportation and helped him go to England. Then internment camps, on the Isle of Mann and in Canada; a stint in the Pioneer Corps of the British army; marriage to my mother, a Scottish gentile; and eventual immigration to Canada.

This would be a happy story of survival, were it not for my father’s profound inability to cope with what had happened to him. There is a diagnosis for people like him now: post-traumatic stress disorder. Throughout my childhood, he had  nightmares. He was unbearably angry, trusted no one except my mother.

Above all, he never told anyone who he “really” was.  The official story when we first came to Canada in 1951 was that he was a German (gentile) anti-Nazi refugee; this story changed after my parents realized the extent of anti-German prejudice in Canada. Then the official story became that my father was English. Despite his heavy European accent, we stuck to that story for years.

My sister, who is older than I, remembers being instructed on her first day of school never to tell anyone where my father came from. School forms asking for parents’ place of birth caused us distress. Our mother told me and my sister that there were some Jews in our father’s family, but instructed us never to let him know that we knew. Our father’s past was a taboo subject. My parents made a few Jewish friends: my mother would whisper to us that so-and-so was Jewish, so that we knew we could trust her.  But at dinner parties we all had to pretend that no one at the dining room table was Jewish.

In the early 1960s my father watched television reports of the Eichmann trials with another “half-Jew”, a man from Poland whose first wife and two children had been gassed. He claimed to be South African, and like my father had an adopted English name. Although each of their wives had whispered her husband’s secret to the other, neither man ever spoke of his background.

When I was fifteen, my father told me he had “something to confess: I am a half Jew”.  He “confessed” this to me because his mother, a German Christian, was coming to Canada to visit us, the first time she would meet us children. Many years later, I learned from a distant Jewish cousin that she had announced her intention to tell us who we were.  But even after my father “confessed”, we were still under strict instructions to hide. Only when I went to McGill University at seventeen did I learn to my great surprise that there were many Jews who actually were open about their identity. 

My father never came to terms with his past. Very rarely he mentioned something about it: on my last visit with him, he told me how upset he had been when he was denied access around 1935 to his local swimming pool. He felt guilty that he had not been able to save the life of a favorite Jewish aunt, even though he could not possibly have done so. Sometime in the 1970s he listened to his employer’s advice never to trust a Jew, without revealing his identity.

Just prior to his death in 1998, at the age of 84, my father was taking a course in Italian at McGill. As an oral report he told his young colleagues about his adventures in Europe, concluding that all his problems had been because his step-father was Jewish.  Even then, 60 years after escaping from Germany, he could not bring himself to say in public that his own father had been a Jew. He told me on our last visit that if someone asked him a direct question, he would not lie: but otherwise, he said, it was “not worth it” to reveal the truth.

 For many years I wanted to change my name back, but as long as my father lived, I could not.  He would have been angry and afraid.  He might have asked me to keep my “old” name for the return address on my letters, just as many years ago he asked his mother to put “Collin” not “Cohn” on her letters (she refused). So I waited, always irritated by the effects of  bearing a fraudulent English name.

So now I have done it: I have my “real” name. The profound effects of the Holocaust on my attitudes, thinking, and scholarship at last have some tangible expression. I no longer bear a name adopted because of fear. It’s a bit late in the game, after 51 years with the other name: what if I die young, I asked myself last September, after all this hassle of making the change?  But I decided that if I do die young, I want to die as who I am.





1 comment:

  1. What a moving story. It is hard to define who you are if your father is in pain to accept his identity. Forgive me if I am wrong, but it sounds like he shared with Primo Levi a sense of guilt being a survivor. But I am sure you give him a new sense of continuation. Mazel tov with your new (old) name.