What’s in a name? Coming out as Andrew Kaufman

I've been called various things throughout my 39 years. At school I was called 'Pinocchio', 'Igor' (the character in cartoon, 'Count Duckula') and 'Gonzo' and various other nicknames, owing to my prominent nose. I now plan to reclaim my family past, reclaim my name from its early 20th century past. I'm coming out as Andrew Kaufman.

Why Andrew Kaufman?

For some time now – ever since I began blogging in fact – it’s been on mind that I need to explain why my blog is called ‘Andrew Kaufman’ and not ‘Andrew Kaye’.

I’ll tell it to you straight.

Kaufman is my (paternal side of the) family’s original Ashkenazi Jewish name. My paternal Grandfather, born Israel Kaufmann, anglicised his name as a young man to avoid the anti-Semitic slurs he and his brother, Jack, were looking to avoid. They were looking for their families to live free from shame in Great Britain.

Fair enough. They had good intentions.

But I think that sucked. Not that their decision sucked, but that the anti-Jewish hatred and stigma that existed at the time sucked. They shouldn’t have had to have anglicised such a unique and distinctive (and to me, more interesting) name.

What’s in a name?

A lot, it would seem.

My grandfather, Israel Kaufmann – later Arthur Kaye – clearly didn’t want the baggage of being from a family that came from the Krakow province in Poland. I’ve blogged elsewhere on British anti-Semitism, past and present.

There would have been many other Ashkenazi Jewish families, like his, who emigrated to London’s East End from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. But, I’ve heard he was an ambitious man.

I can only speculate – I never met him – but I guess he and his brother wanted to break free from any self-defined or imagined ‘ghetto’ that consisted only of other Jewish people. He wanted to be a businessman, and I imagine, to break free from his past.

Kaufman or Kauffman or Kaufmann or Kauffmann?

In German, ‘Kaufmann’ means ‘merchant’ or ‘trader’. That sounds about right.

I’m from a lineage of many hard-working, nervous, possibly neurotic, Jews who tried to escape, constantly looked to escape: poverty, pogroms, the chilly constraints of the Jewish scriptures and the walls of their small-town provincialism.

In 2019 I completed my family tree after an operation to donate a kidney to my Dad – which I’ve blogged about here. The research was healing and continues to be transformative, connecting me to family members I’d never previously met.

I met Helen, who came to me as a gift, finding her as I did through her sister-in-law on Facebook. She lives in Toronto and is the kindest, wittiest and warmest person I’ve been lucky enough to meet this past two years.

Her mother, Sarah (or Cissie), and my grandfather (Israel) were siblings.

Enraptured with excavating our past

Helen and I have been subscribing to genealogy websites and excitedly drawing up speculative annexes to our family tree, never satisfied, always scurrying away, trying to locate more details on who are ancestors were – crucially, who we are.

I’m enraptured. It’s an addiction of sorts. I’ve always loved history, but this is different somehow. It’s like I’m cleaning a smudged mirror and viewing a better reflection of who I really am. My identity and heritage are in full view, so to speak.

It seems my grandfather’s name was spelt various ways, on various documents; different census reports have his name as Kauffman and in another year Kaufman. Helen’s mother’s birth record is registered as Kauffman.

His school report lists him as Israel Kauffman, born 15 June 1898, son of Louis, brother of Jacob and resident at 4 Albert Street. This used to be Deal Street, off Woodseer Street, close to now trendy Shoreditch. I must head there next time the travel restrictions are eased.

We can see the spellings from the typed records don’t always correspond to the actual documents they refer to.

Jewish school
Jewish school from the mid-20th century

Records weren’t always quite so accurate back then. Records were hurriedly inserted into reports, and what’s more “foreign”-sounding names may have stumped British officials, so they would have often been misspelt simply because they were so hard to grasp. Anyhow, neither Helen nor I feel entirely confident how Israel’s surname was originally spelt.

Working with Helen, I’ve learnt so, so much. Family tree research has turned into a treasure trove of daily diversions, twisting this way and that to work out who was married to whom, who fought in World War Two, who fought in World War One.

I can’t recommend genealogy enough as a pastime.

Just know when enough is enough and it’s time to call it a day!

Joseph Finn and the Lithuanian connection

I learnt one line of the family (my paternal grandmother’s matrilineal line) came from Sakiai in Lithuania, once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. Located in South West Lithuania, close to Kaunas, the ancestor that interested me most was Joseph Finn, who became a celebrated trade unionist and important figure in defending workers’ rights in early 20th century London.

Boy, is his story fascinating. After organising strikes and withdrawing his labour, he was effectively blacklisted by business interests in Leeds where he emigrated from Lithuania. I’m talking about the 1880s and 1890s here. The vast majority of my family (and certainly all my close family) emigrated to Britain years before Nazism was ever conceived.

Moving to Boston in the United States he worked in a sweatshop sewing buttonholes and he fell in love with the sister of the man who ran the sweatshop. She was called Eva, and she’s my great great grandmother. She’d been ‘matched’ to a much richer, more influential man, a man on whom the sweatshop depended for business.

Eva had come over to the United States on a boat from Europe (she was from Poland).

On learning his sister was in love with this grubby young ruffian who worked in his sweatshop, Joseph Finn (my great great grandfather’s) manager threw him down a flight of stairs.

Injured, the local Zionists collected funds for him and Eva to travel back to Britain – to Wales, in fact – by boat. You see, the ‘Zionists’ weren’t a bad lot!

In the 1900s and 1910s, Joseph became a pamphleteer, publishing Voice of the Alien, arguing that Eastern European workers were not taking the jobs of English people, but were instead contributing to the economy.

I came across all this history owing to another relative I met, Vicky Zimmerman (another name that can easily get misspelt). She’s an author and pays tribute to her grandmother, my Dad’s Great Aunt, in the wonderfully affecting and witty book, The Woman Who Wanted More.

From her grandmother – Cecily Zimmerman, née Finn, – I got to hear via an audio tape still kept in the British Library’s archives how her husband’s family remained in Central Europe during World War Two and sadly died. I got to hear about her father, (Joseph Finn), and I got to hear about the Lithuanian connection.

Cecily and Joseph’s ancestor was Tobias Finn, who I understand was a Chazan, a person who leads synagogue services and is a cantor. He is the first ancestor my records reach back to, born in 1790 in Sakiai, Lithuania. I’m not sure the synagogue still lies there today close to the city of Kaunas.

In my next blog I’ll be writing about ‘Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust’.

So why I’m Andrew Kaufman, or Kauffman, but not in future, Andrew Kaye

I’ve been called various things throughout my 39 years.

At school I was called ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Igor’ (the character in 1990s cartoon, ‘Count Duckula’) and ‘Gonzo’ and various other nicknames, owing to my prominent nose.

I was called ‘bent‘ once by a bully I knew from my school. We were at a nightclub and he humiliated me in front of his friends.

At Musee Tiskiwin

I’ve been called ‘Andy Kaye’ and indeed that’s the name I ‘christened’ myself (so to speak) when I went to university, thinking that would be more ‘fun’, a bit more ‘cool’ than plain old ‘Andrew’.

When I went to work at Macmillan Cancer Support, I did think about asking colleagues to call me ‘Andrew’ as I wanted to come across a bit more ‘professional’, more ‘serious’. But ‘Andy’ stuck.

My sisters have always called me ‘Anz’. So does my wonderful nephew, Milo.

My partner calls me ‘Chou’, an affectionate term in French.

This blog, however, is my way of saying I now plan to reclaim my family past, reclaim my name from its early 20th century past, in fact.

This summer, I plan to change my surname by deed poll.

I’m proud of my Lithuanian and Polish Jewish roots. I am a proud European Ashkenazi Jew.

Kaye is a lovely name, and it will always be my Dad’s name and will play a major part in my family story.

But from 2022, I hope to called Andrew Kaufman, or who knows, Andrew Kauffman.

If you are interested in reading more of Andrew's blogs and other published work, do take a look here.