Day: November 8, 2017

My strange name

The Russian Ambassador to Serbia, in an interview with Sputnik News, notes that my family name, Serwer, is “strange.”

Indeed it is. Though a name in Kurdistan and Pakistan (it means the leader or the man in front, I am told), my “Serwer” was likely invented at immigration, as all my immediate relatives and their descendants in the US bear that name except for those few who later changed it to “Server.” Apart from Kurds and Pakistanis, I know of no Serwers in the US to whom I am not related.

The name before immigration was Servianski. My ancestors were Jews, as I am, once upon a time from Russia. They left there sometime in the 19th century for the Russian partition of Poland, where they lived near Lake Servi, whence the name. Now a resort spot for middle class Poles near the northeastern town of Sejny, Lake Servi must have hosted a Jewish shtetl once upon a time. Fully half the population of Sejny was Jewish at one point, and there is still a synagogue building there, but no Jewish community. Russian czars, World War I, Stalin, Hitler, and World War II took care of that.

We don’t know whether my antecedents were political refugees or economic migrants, but the family was not unique: many Jews left unwelcoming Russia and Poland in the nineteenth century, then moved on to the United States in the 1890s. Mine arrived not at Ellis Island, which only opened in 1892, but shortly before that at Castle Garden, the facility at the Battery where immigrants were processed earlier.

A colleague has suggested to me that the Russian ambassador’s remark was a thinly veiled anti-Semitic one. I suppose that might be right. But I don’t really care: my views on the Balkans and Russia are shaped mainly by my commitment to liberal democracy and its virtues, not least of which is correct treatment of Jews and other minorities. That virtue holds today, despite the current fashion for ethnic nationalism in both the US and Russia, not to mention the Balkans and other places. I was pleased to see that yesterday’s elections in the US (especially Virginia, New Jersey, and New York) amounted to a massive repudiation of Trumpism and, by implication, Putinism.

Russia’s and Poland’s loss of Jews like my family was America’s gain. The Balkans would do well to remember that when hearing Moscow’s attacks on Americans, Jewish or not. We are the people Russia and other countries drove out, cast off, and enslaved, to their lasting detriment. I am proud of my strange name, which is preferable to one derived from a pretty lake in Russian-occupied Poland that my grandparents fled.

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