Does a name determine what a person might become

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My full name is Elan Israel Lubliner, something I have written down every day of my life, something I have heard dreadfully mispronounced by substitute teachers too many times and something I have had to live with for 16 years. Yet, it wasn’t until I walked through Poland this summer that I realized any significance within this title.

The trip to Poland lasted one week. It was meant to educate young Jews about the atrocities of the Shoah, and what better way to learn than walking through the death camps themselves? What better way to understand the darkest hour of our people than stepping into the closest thing to hell on earth? And so we Jewish American teenagers faced the most frightening challenge we could — for one long week we attempted to comprehend the evil that was the Shoah.

The last two days of Poland were spent in a little city known as Lublin, the place my ancestors came from, and the place that had decided my last name. Lubliner, after all, simply means “from Lublin.” I was awakened on the bus to the words “We have reached Majdanek,” and in that moment realized that I was the first Lubliner to return to our ancestral home.

But that first site of Lublin was not one of comfort. It was a black iron gate and a gas chamber.

Majdanek was the one death camp in Poland that retained almost all of its original appearance. It was this eerie, unbearable sense of reality that caused so many of us to lose composure at that point. But for me, it was something else entirely. It was the fact that everything in my life came back to this place: My very namesake was attributed to Lublin, a city where so many were murdered, a city where Jews no longer live.

As I walked through that evil place, I realized that never again would my last name be merely a name — it would be a suffocating memory of Poland, a hated memory of Lublin that would haunt me wherever a name was necessary. And even now, every time a teacher does roll call I think of Lublin, every time someone utters my surname I see only Poland. It is my burden to live with that name, for it is a memory before anything else.

Why is it that at Ellis Island, where so many names were changed or rearranged or rewritten entirely, our name remained intact? Why is it that my own father, although he wanted to, was unable to leave Lubliner for a new name?

I believe it is because we carry an unwanted but necessary responsibility never to forget the city of our ancestors. I am the only male in my immediate family, and thus the responsibility of carrying that title lies with me. And now I have seen where we came from, and it haunts me even still — but I will never change my name, or let it be taken from me, because remembering Lublin is the most powerful way to prove Hitler wrong. We are still here, and this summer I proved that by coming back to Lublin.

Does a name determine what a person might become? Lubliner meant nothing to me until this summer, when I learned its awful significance within my own life. Understanding its meaning has changed me, but I believe it is no coincidence that my middle name is Israel. Lubliner is a symbol of death and the past, but Israel is my symbol for hope and the future. And my name is Elan Israel Lubliner, a paradox of sorts, and a name of more underlying meaning than I could have ever imagined.

Elan Israel Lubliner is a student at Campolindo High School in Moraga and a member of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.