In his job as a letter courier, Lars Menk has to be careful not to let the names on the mail he is delivering distract him. Menk, after all, knows something about names. He compiled close to 13,000 of them for "A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames," an 800-page, scrupulously detailed reference book that took him nearly a decade to complete. And that is why today, when he stumbles across rare variants of Jewish names-or names he's never even seen before, and which he thinks are on the verge of dying out-Menk has been known to go home, research the names' origins and contact the names' owners to discuss their family heritage.
A self-taught genealogist who at 19 became fascinated studying his own roots, Menk now probes what names mean and where they come from because he wants to help others like himself find out, in a historical and a spiritual sense, who they are.
"When I study someone else's ancestry I try to follow their family's thoughts and lives. I'm interested in where they lived, what they were doing, why this person changed his location or his work, where his decisions came from," says Menk, who describes himself as a "mystical person" and who speaks with a rare, bravely open sensitivity. "People want to know the facts [about their families] and that's what I give them. But the facts are only just the beginning."
In the 2005 tome released by Avotaynu, the world's leading publisher of Jewish genealogical texts, Menk provides readers with what book reviewer Ralph Baer calls "the most significant and useful genealogical reference book about German Jewry published to date." The book, which won honorable mention in the Reference Book category for the National Jewish Book Award, includes the etymological and geographical origins of thousands of Jewish names as they emerged within the boundaries of pre-World War I Germany (encompassing East Prussia, parts of the Baltics, Silesia and other regions). Readers can trace a family name back to the German city, town or village where it, or a variation of it, first appeared and the date when it appeared-in some cases going back as far as the 14th century, but more frequently referring to the early 1800s when Jews were required to use surnames rather than family identification based only on their fathers' first names.
According to retired American engineer Edwin Taub Richard, who has been researching his relatives over the last 20 years: "This dictionary is a superb source for finding the origin of your German families."
Menk, however, had no idea he was embarking on a project of this scale when he drove in 1988 into the Hunsrück mountains of Rhineland-Pfalz, looking for clues about his cattle-dealing ancestors' past. No one in his family had ever mentioned having Jewish roots-on the contrary, Menk's grandfather joined the SA at 19 and became a Nazi. But in digging through his family archives, Menk discovered that a distant great-grandmother had been a Jew. The revelation stirred him deeply.
"I wanted to know where my roots were because that's what I'm made of-all those influences of the past that came together in my person," says Menk, who studied medicine for four years in Münster, though it was a career that didn't "feel right" and therefore he didn't finish. Jewish teachings and religion, on the other hand, had attracted Menk since childhood, and suddenly that branch of genealogy became a natural course for him to pursue. "In studying my ancestors I tried to become like them, to think like they did, to know how they lived their lives and what their attitudes were. I wanted to find out who I was by looking at their influence."
Soon, Menk was bringing that same intensity to bear on his investigations of hundreds, and later thousands, of German Jewish family names. Having moved to Berlin in 1984, he flirted with other university studies before turning to his passion, genealogy, in the 1990s. Menk taught himself to read Hebrew, tracked down obscure books on Judaica and, anytime he came across a name he didn't know, he researched it and "followed the [family] line down." They were his "years of apprenticeship," he recalls, as he combed the nation's archives and began constructing what would one day become the dictionary.
"I loved it," Menk, 45, says of his cross-country adventures. "I took pictures. I collected documents. I was fascinated. I'm lucky to live in Germany where all this information is available.
Menk did his most in-depth research, ironically, during the five years he worked as a security guard for the Berlin Chamber of Commerce. As someone skilled on the Internet, he made use of his slow job hours by logging onto jewishgen.org and other sites; his off-days, likewise, he stayed buried among his literature and notes at the State Library, devoting "24/7 to the project." Menk credits his wife, a nurse from Kazakhstan, for helping keep him afloat psychologically and economically. Indeed, Menk never accepted any money for the private family research that people contacted him to do-which is why he still refers to himself as an amateur, citing that "amateur comes from amare, to love, because I love it."
"I was afraid that if it became something I did for money, I would lose my love for the research; that the money would kill my enthusiasm," Menk says. "I forget everything around me when I'm in a special project. My reality. My work. My family. I just concentrate on [the work] as if it were my own family."