Ever Since I Remember, Part I

On a stone bench, set back slightly from the bustle of the street, rests an old woman reading a three-cent newspaper. Unaccustomed to the liquid warmth of spring light, the inky print begins to blur before her eyes in drowsy waves. The paper falls to her lap as she leans back, face upturned, eyelids closed, a faint dream beginning to sweep her away from the city street. Towering above the sleeping woman, on a massive plinth, a marble lion casts his stoney-eyed stare northward across the teaming savannah of Fifth Avenue. His companion keeps watch of the southern approach, as Silvia, in her tailored suit and low heeled pumps, approaches, purposefully making her way down the crowded sidewalk.

Upon reaching the lions, Silvia pauses slightly, noticing the woman asleep on the bench, shifting restlessly. With characteristic resolve, Silvia continues, ascending the broad marble steps of the New York Public Library. The sounds of the busy street dissolve into reverential hush, as Silvia passes through the arched portico and opens the door, in search of a book that documents her past.

The terror of the war is over, the bleak uncertainties and anxieties of the displaced persons camps are behind her. Silvia has made it to the United States, and has found a job that pays the rent on a small apartment in Harlem – no small feat for a woman who has been going at it alone for so long. She has survived and she is young enough to see a future that seems to hold happiness. She lives with a man, a poet and writer, whom she respects and cares for, and around them gather other Estonians, who talk about literature and publishing, culture and politics; inevitably, they also talk of home.

It is a fragment of home that Silvia seeks while climbing the broad marble staircase to the third floor. Without papers or photographs from her life before, Silvia wants to hold one small item in her hand. Something tangible to connect her to family and ground her in the present.


The remnants of war hang shroud like in the Rose Reading Room, whose high arched windows remain blackened with paint, applied in fear of German air raids. The gloomy pall finds brief relief in the beacons of light that dot the expanse of the room and cloister the countless readers in their quiet intensity. Silvia pauses on the threshold, feeling small beneath the ceiling of ornately carved paneling and the rose tinted clouds soaring nearly fifty feet above her head. Beneath her and supporting the room, are the endless stacks, accessed by pneumatic tubes and the great large wheel of the conveyor system; it’s a foundation of knowledge that steadies Silvia as she steps into the room.

Silvia orients herself to the reference section, walking along the perimeter of the room, her heels tapping unknown code on the marble floor. The books appear endless in their stretch of shelving, doubling in length on the balcony hovering above, but all the books  recede to the background when Silvia finds her title on the shelf: her eager hand reaching for the smooth cloth binding. She turns to the massive oak tables filled with bent heads and open books. Finding a free space, she pulls out a chair in the light of a lamp and opens the book halfway through. Would it be there? Was it as she remembers?

Silvia turns to “L” then “M”, too far to “P” and then back again to “N” – always “N”. Her fingers move down pages, resting beneath the names of families now scattered or gone, some having disappeared like invisible ink. The name she seeks is as fragile as those surrounding it, only fleetingly used after her Father registered in the book of “Who’s Who in Central and Eastern Europe” in 1939; a name that had identified her, connecting her to family and country. Now, a decade later, it is a name that provides a small solitary comfort, the  print above her finger: “Naidre”.

Nichtig, Nihtig, Naidre, Narma. “Ever since I remember, we were about to change our name; we tried on one name after another and never came to an agreement.”

Sitting beneath the scudding ceiling, Who’s Who opened on the table in front of her, Silvia’s thoughts levitate through the mist of clouds above her, spanning the distance to her house in Tallinn. She plays another hand of  bridge with her family, less reluctantly now, and once again, they begin their discussion of names and naming. At the corner of the game table, the erstwhile copy of Estonian Names: A Selection of New Surnames (Eesti Nimi: Valik Uusi Perekonnanimesid) lays open, its green, paper cover smudged with use, it’s spine worn delicate in the center. They have considered many names selected from Eesti Nimi, but each becomes caught up in uncertainty. For now, they all agree to drop the “c” in Nichtig.

Eager to be rid of the identifiable otherness of Nichtig, so laden with unwanted history, but uneasy with the power of naming – of calling their family into being – they continually try on names, exploring their representation and characterization with a single elusive word. They seek consensus in a process of identifying not only themselves but their children’s children to come – the monumental responsibility, not lost in the discussion, as they struggle with meaning, alliteration and transliteration.

“Soon some of the names we had considered were on a protective list, and we had to try on new ones. By then we were aware that the name should be pronounceable in foreign languages also, as Father had a lot of dealings with foreign countries.”

The faint rustle of turned pages and hushed voices in the reading room gives way to the voice of Juhan, Silvia’s father, who reminds her once again that the name Nichtig may not be German, but Swedish. He thinks he should have it traced and intends to call upon someone knowledgeable. But now? Now, Silvia knows with certainty, in this vast whispering library that her father will never realize that ambition.

“By now there won’t be anything left to trace.”

When I first began tracing Silvia on-line, the family’s use of multiple surnames became quickly evident, being used at times in unison and often with a fluid interchange. Estonian archives, some of the most digitized in the world, hold multiple documents pertaining to the family under multiple surnames. Like the photograph of Silvia’s stepmother, Johanna Nichtig (Narma), referred to in an earlier post, two names are distinctly written on the photograph itself. Furthermore, Juhan Narma’s cooperative business is always referenced as J. Nihtig co., even as the family is still regarded as Nichtig. Initially, as an American, with our virtually open-ended naming laws, and with little knowledge of Estonia, I was puzzled by these name shifts, but as I learned more about Estonian history, small understandings were made clear; although, admittedly, those same understanding provoked more questions.

Much of the mystery was resolved in learning about the Estonianization of names, a process – greatly simplified here – that initially arose in Estonia as an intellectual movement, in the mid-to-late 19th-century to rid the country of the foreign family names that had been given by ruling German elites at the beginning of the century. It was also a means for asserting Estonian language dominance in a country repeatedly overrun by occupying forces and language restrictions imposed by other countries (see predominant language timeline in the notes).

“Judging from the name, the family was not liked by the baron who handed out the names. Nichtig is German for void, worthless. Worse names were given to people who had caused trouble for the barons and their established order. But mostly people were named after their trade, or farm, or kind of place they lived in.”

Despite a growing sense of national consciousness and the efforts made toward Estonianization, the process to change one’s name was not only costly, but exceedingly complicated before Estonian independence, resulting in at least half of the population still holding foreign surnames in 1918. After independence, the Estonian Literary Society (Eesti Kirjanduse Selts) and the Mother Tongue Society (Akadeemiline Emakeele Selts) continued to promote the Estonianization of names, but it was not until the League for the Estonianization of Names (Nimede Eestistamise Liit) was established by the Konstantine Päts government in 1935 that widespread name change was adopted. By 1940, nearly ninety percent of the population had changed their name.

A few months ago, I began to write a post about Estonianization, speculating as to why the family had not changed their name until 1940. Nichtig was clearly not Estonian and Silvia’s family was deeply involved in the nationalistic endeavors intended to strengthen a newly declared republic, ridding themselves of the linguistic legacy of occupation. Her father Juhan was not only a member of Isamaalitt, a nationalistic political society, but served as the managing director of Isamaalitt’s newspaper, New Estonia (Uus Eesti 1935-1940) that acted as the informal voice of the government. The family was clearly vested in building an Estonian nation. Why did they hesitate in changing their name? What held them back?

I was also curious as to why, after long delay, they chose the name Narma? For a few weeks, I sought cultural or literary references. For lack of an answer, I resorted to sending an e-mail to the only Estonian reference to the name, aside from the family, I could find, which was a rug company in Lihula. They graciously replied, saying there were no known cultural references, but the word “Narma” meant something approximating “fringe” in English. It seems the company had started a rag rug business during Soviet occupation, and found “Narma” to be an appropriate name for their endeavor. “Fringe” seemed an odd choice to me for the family to finally decide upon, especially, as the meaning of “Nichtig” was clear, and I didn’t think Silvia could have had great fondness for it.

Finding myself little closer to understanding their name change than when I first asked the question, I began to search farther afield. A town in Russia is named Narma, but why would the family chose a Russian name? Her father often went to Moscow on business, so were there business connections? Family connections? For months, I asked myself what I could be missing, what I was failing to understand?

But for all my over-thinking, my chief failure was that I hadn’t taken into account the tendencies of human nature, and the shear randomness of life. The family did not come to the decision lightly, and then, when they had finally decided on Naidre, chance itself would play its own card.

While the Nihtigs continued their hand at bridge, the names under consideration were scratched off the list – in use by other families or other regulations. New, supplemental lists, were periodically published by the government, and the family would repeat the “ever-since-I-can-remember” process. But every day of deliberation brought them one day closer to an unanticipated due date. As the decade drew to a close, the looming Soviet threat left no room for delay.

“In just about the last minute we finally filed and the name “Narma” was one of the last to come through before the Russians abolished the “capitalistic-nationalistic-chauvinistic” law.” 

Juhan Nihtig stands in line at the  registrar’s office. For fifty years he has used a variant of Nichtig. Now, as a greying man, he intends to formally change the family name with his “signature and a handshake”, only to discover that Naidre is on a protected register – no longer an available name. Unexpectedly, it is Juhan Narma who shakes the clerks hand and walks out of the office.

There had been objections to “Narma”, too: if one really wanted to, one could pronounce it as “narr maa” meaning “fool earth” or “fool ground”, which would not be much of an improvement over “worthless”.

Abruptly, Silvia closes the book, returning to the solidness of the oak table in front of her. After a brief pause, she reshelves the book and retraces her steps down the staircase. Pushing open the heavy door, she steps past the chilly shade of the portico, blinking in the bright spring light of Fifth Avenue. Passing the lion, she turns expectantly, but the sleeping woman is gone, having taken her dreams along with her. Silvia picks up her pace, as memories and names fall behind her to the pavement. A decade later, she will retrieve those memories, pick up her pen and write her story. 



First image of the registry is from the site Geni, originally found here. (Note the “ÿ” in Silvia’s name in this record. “Ÿ” is not an official letter of the Estonian alphabet – called a loan letter.)

The woman sleeping on the stone bench is a written sketch of a photograph by the street photographer, Frank Larson. The Lady and the Lion. Here is a link to learn more about the photographer, Frank Larson.

The poem, “Reading Room” by Richard Eberhart was also a source of inspiration for the reading room. “…All sorts of souls were bent over silence reading the past,…”

Above image used of the Rose Reading Room is not from the 1950’s with blackened windows. Rather it is an image taken at night (September 16, 2013), and approximates the ambiance of the reading room in the 1950’s. Photo credit: Jordi Peralta [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

It is not known if Silvia ever visited the main branch of the New York Public Library (currently named the Stephen C. Schwarzman building), but it is known that she sought out the book “Who’s Who in Central and Eastern Europe” to revisit the family name “Naidre” in print, while living in New York in the early fifties. I felt Silvia would appreciate a visit to this iconic library. To learn more about the Rose Reading Room and the main branch of the New York Public Library follow the links below.

About the “main branch”

Rose Reading Room renovations

Library Lions

Tour of the stacks at the NYPL

Light falling on the reading room

All italicized work is quoted from the unpublished papers of Silvia Narma.

I consulted many online documents to learn about Estonianization. One article in particular that offers a more thorough examination is The Movement to Estonianize Surnames in Interwar Estonia, by Toivo U. RAUN.

Estonianization of Names at the Registrar’s Office an Estonian Cultural Film offers a look at the registration process as filmed for promotional purposes.

While reading about Estonianization, I came across a timeline of dominant language usage in Tartu, Estonia in the article Historical Multilingualism of Street Names in Estonia, by Peeter Päll and found it helpful to my understanding. “…here is the list of “governing“ languages in Tartu, the second city in Estonia: 1224 Latin and Low German, 1558 Russian, 1582 Polish, 1600 Swedish, 1603 Polish, 1625 Swedish, 1656 Russian, 1661 Swedish, 1704 Russian, 1918 Estonian, 1940 Russian and Estonian, 1941 German and Estonian, 1944 Russian and Estonian, 1991 Estonian.” (Strangely, German is not noted in the 1800’s.)

To read more about the significance of naming, especially in relation to indigenous peoples and/or marginalized cultural groups, see the book, Names and Naming: People, Places, Perceptions and Power, Edited by Guy Puzey and Laura Kostanski, Multilingual Matters, 2016.

As a final note, this is a process of seeking and finding the story of Silvia Narma. In many ways, I will will get it wrong. My hope is that those who know better than I will help me tell Silvia’s story by pointing me in the right direction.

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