The principal character of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, for whom the book is named, recalls how he was brought as a four-year-old from Prague on a Kindertransport train to Liverpool Street station where he was met by an austere couple, a vicar and his wife from North Wales. The boy was renamed Dafydd Elias, and subsequently raised in a small village. As an adult, having reverted to his original name, Austerlitz made his way back to the Czech Republic and, unable to detect the borders between the distortions of memory and fact, relived his life as a child. As I reread Austerlitz, I came across the following passage recounting the memory of Dafydd Elias’s boyhood in Wales:
I had never heard of an Austerlitz before, and from the first I was convinced that no one else bore that name, no one in Wales, or in the Isles, or anywhere else in the world. And since I began investigating my own history some years ago, I have never in fact come upon another Austerlitz, not in the telephone books of London or Paris, Amsterdam or Antwerp.
As a boy in Wales, like the fictional Austerlitz, I had never heard of a Moritz outside of my uncle’s family in Manchester. There were none that I knew of in Cardiff and none that I had heard of in Wales. Once a year, when a new telephone directory landed on our doorstep, I immediately flipped the pages to the ‘M’ section, hoping that we would not be alone, that there would be another Moritz listed, that we would have company.
I did eventually come across many people named Moritz in a telephone book, but only much later in my life. I found them in an online archive of the directories for Munich from the 1930s, which listed six people of our name, including a doctor, an innkeeper, a graduate student and a piano teacher. My grandfather was there listed as Maximilian Moritz, and his telephone number was given as 37 23 47. The telephone had been installed to help my grandparents follow what my father once described as ‘the latest developments’. The same number was repeated in the directories for 1938 and 1939. In 1940 there was no longer a listing.
When the First Minister of Wales asked, ‘What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in Silicon Valley?’ my skin shrivelled and all my feelings about being Jewish in Wales in the 1960s came flooding back. It was 2001. He posed the question as a lunchtime conversation opener in a restaurant in San Jose, where I had met him and other members of a Welsh delegation sent to uncover the mysteries of Silicon Valley. Later, he used pauses in the conversation to ask me why there were no great Jewish rugby players and why I, as the eldest son of Jews, had not become a doctor. Later, dwelling on his questions, I couldn’t help but wonder whether part of the reason a nice Jewish boy like me was in Silicon Valley was that, while I was growing up, my schoolmates, their parents, my teachers, the shopkeepers, the man who hired me to deliver newspapers, our dentist and doctor and the people my parents had hired – once they had sufficient money to do so – to hang wallpaper, or tend to the garden, or replace the roof tiles, or repair their cars, had all been asking themselves (for, on the whole, they were too diplomatic, too restrained, and too tactful to say it out loud), one of two questions: ‘What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in Wales?’ or, ‘Moritz. What sort of a name is that then?’
These people were, for the most part, Anglican, Protestant, Methodist or Presbyterian in a country that, at the time, was far from multicultural. A few people, and they were also considered oddities (but not as odd as the Jews), were Catholics or Quakers. In Britain in the 1960s a ‘first’ name was known as a ‘Christian’ name. My schoolmates were called Ian, Rosemary, Catherine, Evan, Hugh, Harry, Rhys, Gareth, Morgan, Robert, Hywel, Sandra, Felicity, Sian and Dewi. They were certainly never known as Mordecai ben Aharon ha Levi – which is what my own name is in Hebrew. Moritz was so much of a marker that I sometimes used to say that my family came from Switzerland since, at the time, there was only one thing worse than being Jewish in Wales, and that was being German in Wales.
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