Slipping memory for names

Remembering and Forgetting Names

(c) Oliver B. Pollak 

Oliver Pollak

RICHMOND, California — We lived in Nebraska for 42 years. In 2016 we moved to Richmond on the East Bay in Northern California to be near our children and grandchildren, and less extreme weather.

Long driveways, tending the lawn and trees, shoveling snow, borrowing tools, wine on back deck overlooking creek, indoors when inclement, and kid’s car pools, results in some familiarity and friendship with neighbors. Our Venn life diagram overlapped lawyering, teaching, faith, neighborhood and medical care. Karen and I were professionally and emotionally attached to Omaha. Funerals were outnumbering weddings, bar mitzvahs and car pools.

As for politics, oy vey. Nebraska last voted Democrat in a presidential election in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson. 54 years and waiting. In 2016 Trump received 58.7 per cent of the vote. Chances are you were sitting next to, being served, listening to someone with different values. We are political refugees from a red state. Glory to the left coast, politically far more agreeable.

Our Venn needed replacing. Moving to a new town, being thirty years older than the median age, no children to car pool, no dog to walk, no interest in professional sports, and searching for a synagogue, means making friends takes longer. You meet nice people, but the Northern California ethos is different. We are retired, they work. Northern California seems more autonomous. It provides me more time to write. The older you get, the more difficult it is to find a mate, which concerned us as our sons went single into their thirties. And perhaps the older you get, establishing new friends is more complex. You have more baggage, experience enriches and complicates. Casual relationships are easy. This is not to say we are lonely, just an observation of community and human interaction. We are sociable, reasonably well-read, and well-traveled.

We went to the Marina Bay Neighborhood Council 27th Annual potluck holiday party in the Harbormaster’ Meeting Room. A bit of demography and sociology. The party is free, and for $25 we became members. It’s sort of like a “social” from high school and college days, a mixer, a way to meet new people without music or dancing. Food, wine, and schmooze. The neighborhood has about 2,500-3,000 residents, our subdivision about 270. About 50 attended the get together, at least three from our complex. At least seven were Jewish.

The wine came from Costco, all 90 points or better. Starbucks, new to the neighborhood, donated coffee. Tasty store-bought and homemade salads with micro greens, coleslaw, pasta salad, the usual carrots, celery, cauliflower and broccoli dip tray, Safeway roasted chicken, Costco meatballs and mini quiches, egg rolls, pot stickers, crab rangoons (rename crab Yangon, not likely), shrimp and cocktail sauce, cookies, chocolate and obviously homemade rum balls, brownies, and apple crumble. What trust we put in people, many of whom are strangers, that we will eat the food they put on the table.

Our contribution included a $7.99 decorative jar of Greek olives with pimentos and garlic, pearl onions, and cornichons, from Costco. I have wanted this “for the longest time,” with credit to the 1983 Billy Joel album, “An Innocent Man,” but further back than that. We also served up cabernet wine cheese and crackers. We toted the leftovers home.

With age, hearing and sight may deteriorate. You may not hear clearly and sharply. Night driving is a challenge. I met an interesting guy. He told me his name in a crowded noisy room. Arthur. He spelled out his last name. I did not write it down, but relied on my memory. First mistake. Between the wine and the heaping potluck table the precise details started to slip.

At three in the morning insomnia struck. I got the Arthur, but the family name centrifuged in my head. In the din of the party, Arthur’s last name sounded like naima. Neiman, Naiman, Nieman; Neuman, Newman, Nauman, Nachman, and all could end with a double nn. Was he new man, no one, next man, or some other philological bloom?

This is personal to me because my family name has a 65-85% chance to be misspelled, Pollak becomes Pollack. Even after I have taught a class for a semester, given out a syllabus, marked their exams, and accepted the term papers after 11 weeks, there is still a 50% chance that the student will misspell my name. There is an ingrained consensus to spell my name wrong. It was suggested that Felix Frankfurter change his last name to something less Germanic, he did not. It was suggested that my father change his name to Pollard, he did not.

The final indignity is the Totenbuch Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech) published in Vienna in 1971, 1987, and 1989. The Austro Hungarian Empire had lots of Pollaks’ with various spelling and pronunciations. The Totenbuch lumps Pollak, Pollack, Polak, Polack, Polok, Pollock, and so on, under the generic Pollak. My paternal grandmother, Agnes Pollak died two weeks after arriving at Theresienstadt. A total of 148 Pollaks died at Theresienstadt.

The takeaway is, write down the name, almost immediately, or enter it on your cell phone. I could have asked for his business card, but it’s unlikely the likely septuagenarian-octogenarian had one, and I was out of his busyness cards.

A few years ago when Michele Bachmann taunted the media and well-meaning Americans my nonagenarian mother, born a Bachmann, asked me worriedly, are we related. We arrived in America in 1952. Mother became a devoted donating Democrat.  She had mass produced solicitation photographs signed by Clintons, Gores, Obamas, and Bidens. I assured mother that Marcus Bachmann was not Jewish and she was not related to a Republican.

So Arthur N., if you read this, please contact me. Otherwise I’ll get in touch with the person who sent me the invitation to the party.

If I twittered in the early hours they would be introspective searching for the light, not excoriating invectives but reconciling misunderstandings. A better way to start the day. Understand, not get even or overcome.


Oliver B. Pollak is a freelance writer and an Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He practiced law for 32 years and is the author of over ten books and 650 scholarly and popular articles.




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