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What's in a Name?

In which the author discovers something quite extraordinary, and totally unexpected, about his admittedly rare surname

I am the son of one of those immigrant fathers who didn’t change their last names at Ellis Island. I don’t know why, but when he arrived here in 1940 at the age of 8, a Jewish refugee fleeing Warsaw after the Nazi invasion of Poland inaugurated World War II, his parents opted to keep the decidedly unusual name of Potok.

As a kid, I suffered the slings and arrows that most of us with such foreign names grow up with. I was called Pollock, Pockrock and worse. One unkind kid on the playground, perhaps sensing some need for attention, labeled me Peacock. Even today, when my work for the Southern Poverty Law Center calls for talking about far-right extremism to reporters, my name is routinely rendered as Potock.

There have been some small consolations.

The name means “stream” or “brook” in Polish, and if you do a Google image search, you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of lovely photos and videos of waterways in Eastern Europe. I’m distantly related to the truly great writer, Chaim Potok, which for a magazine editor seems like a good thing. It’s easy to spell — well, it should be, anyway, at a mere five letters — and my wife and son seem to like it.

But that’s about all I’ve ever thought about it.

Until, that is, I received an E-mail recently from a friend in the same business, Mark Pitcavage, the fact-finding director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish human rights group. As he often does, Pitcavage had been leafing through obscure radical-right tracts, and he’d just put down a 1923 book by one Henry Peck Fry, The Modern Ku Klux Klan. Fry was a former Kleagle, or recruiter, for the Klan, and his book, while endorsing white supremacy, attacked the 1920s organization as violent, un-American and essentially a racket run by people looking to get rich — which it was. Fry had been the chief source for at least one of 21 consecutive articles written by The New York World in an important 1921 expose of the Klan.

Pitcavage had discovered something bizarre.

On page 92 of his book, Fry was in the thick of a detailed description of the ceremonies that the 1920s, or “second era,” Klan was into. Newly “naturalized” members of the Invisible Empire, he said, are at a particular point introduced to the Mystical Insignia of a Klansman, described as a “cheap little celluloid button,” red in color and inscribed with the letters KOTOP. Fry said that word was unexplained and came accompanied by images of a square and an extended open hand.

And then there was this, without further elaboration: “Kotop is also used as a hailing word, its answer being ‘Potok,’ a reversal of the previous word.”

Now, I’ve had some odd experiences in the 17 years I’ve been doing anti-racist work for the SPLC. One of the more amusing ones came very early on, when I inadvertently agreed to go on a radio show that was run by adherents of the theology of Christian Identity, which describes Jews as biologically descended from Satan. At one point, the show’s host referred to “your father, the Devil.” I didn’t know a thing about Identity at the time, but I did know my father could be a grouch. I responded in the only way I could think of: “How in the world did you know that?”

But my name? My very Jewish name? The one I share with my Holocaust-survivor father and one of the most famous Jewish-American writers ever?

A Klan hailing word?

For some reason, as I turned this bit of bizarre arcana over in my mind later, I got to thinking about David Duke, the neo-Nazi and former Klan leader who came close to being elected governor of Louisiana in 1991 and is the author of that timeless work, Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question. What would Duke, who has often personally attacked me, have to say about all this?

He wouldn’t like it, no doubt. Although I’m not even technically Jewish — my mother was raised an Episcopalian — Duke would surely see it as yet another sign that the Jewish “tribe” had been bold enough to infiltrate his beloved Klan. What other possible explanation could there be for “Potok” being part of Klan lore?

It would be almost as if the International Jewish Conspiracy had adopted, as one of its own secret passwords, the “hailing name” of Duke. But in that case, the reversed name response, “Ekud,” almost sounds Hebrew — kind of like Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, defense minister and deputy prime minister of Israel.

And neither David Duke nor I would like that.