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From strict to starry: discovering the original meaning of my German name

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From strict to starry: discovering the original meaning of my German name
The Großer Stern in Berlin's Tiergarten. Photo: DPA
12:17 CEST+02:00
I gained a new surname when I moved to Germany. No marriage or legal conversion was involved, but rather my name as I knew it took on a different pronunciation and meaning.

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I was no longer Stern - implying serious or strict in English - but Schtern (since the ‘St’ is pronounced as ‘Sch’ at the beginning of words in German), or star.

Only when visiting Germany for the first time, on a impromptu trip in 2008 while living briefly in nearby southern Sweden, did I discover the ubiquity of Stern, be it a Sternfahrt (Star cruise), the Großer Stern square in Berlin's Tiergarten or several Stern Hotels. Stern seemed schöner when plastered on a boat adrift on the summery Spree or on a giant monument adorning a regal park.

Growing up in California, I had never fancied the meaning of Stern in English. It reminded me of the gargoyle-like stare I would receive from a teacher, ironically named Ms. Bore, for whispering in class. I had heard its other meaning in German, but it didn’t register until I would begin saying it - and thinking about it - differently myself.

A conversation with a German acquaintance shortly after moving here in 2012 for a journalism fellowship (not at Stern magazine) still stands out to me. “Are you…,” he began, shifting his eyes around the room as though we were spies about to exchange an encoded document, “erm, Jewish?”

“I’m not religious or anything, but yeah, culturally. I suppose my family celebrated a bit of everything, though,” I said, thinking of the mini plastic Christmas tree we kept next to a Menorah each December. “Why do you ask?”

“You have the name Stern,” he replied more matter of factly. “And it’s a Jewish name, though I think I’ve only seen it in Germany in history books or documentaries.”

I can see why, as Germany’s best known Sterne are part of the past. One of the most recognized is Itzhak Stern (1901-1969), the accountant who worked for Oskar Schindler in Krakow and is credited with typing the famous Schindler’s List, or Jews who he helped save by putting them to work at his factory during the Holocaust.

Others were renowned for their contributions to academics: Moritz Abraham Stern (1807-1894) was a famous mathematician, and the first Jew to hold full professorship at a German university, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. The physicist Otto Stern (1888-1969) was the second most nominated person for a Nobel Prize, with one win in 1943, a decade after he had emigrated to the US once the Nazis came into power.

Curious about the modern Sternweg (trail of stars), I searched on Facebook for my other namesakes, finding them largely in the US, Israel and even Argentina, all immigration destinations of once deutsche Sterne. My own family had left the German and Yiddish speaking areas of Europe for these countries in the 1920s and 30s. Suddenly it felt more meaningful living where they had left, keeping alive an old name in a modern context.

Nowadays, while Stern is one of the most common words in Germany, I often experience how it is one of the least common names. Several times in the six years I have lived here, heads deep in magazines in doctors’ waiting rooms have abruptly tilted up at me when it’s called. Germans especially familiar with English pronunciation have self-corrected themselves, usually resulting in something like, “Hallo Frau Scht...Stern.” Some have seemed to suspect that Stern is my pseudonym. “That’s so funny,” a computer repair specialist told me as I filled out my surname on a form. “Is that your real name?”

Yet I have received some positive reactions as well. Most are a modest, “What a lovely name!” Once one was incorporated into a rare pick-up line issued by a German: “Ach ein Stern, wie im Himmel!” (“Oh a star, like in the sky!”)

Recently, feeling a bit nervous before interviewing a conservative German politician notorious for her harsh remarks, I was greeted with an unexpectedly warm reception. “Rachel Stern: that sounds like the name of a movie star! I was so thrilled to see I’d be interviewed by someone with this name!” she gushed, also struck by the novelty of Rachel - a name she had also only heard in American films or the TV show Friends.

When I visit the States, it can be refreshing that nobody flinches at either of my names, the same way it’s refreshing to always receive tap water in restaurants, and smiles from strangers who are sober. Yet my unusual name in Germany makes me think more about my own identity in a way I wouldn’t had I never been challenged to do so. Whether introducing myself here in German or English, I will usually say that I’m “Rachel Stern, or Schtern” and somehow that sounds just about right.

READ MORE: Oh fork! The joys (and shocks) of German dining customs as an American

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