I was always fascinated with the origin and meaning of my surname—Gindler. I was born and raised in the Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi (49°25’17” N; 26°59’47” E), formerly known as Proskurov. Despite multiple pogroms (ironically by Khmelnytskyi’s Cossacks as well) and the Nazi Holocaust, the city was known for its strong Jewish presence in the second half of 20th century. Jews constituted the core of the city’s intelligentsia—doctors, teachers, engineers, economists, librarians, military officers, etc. There were also many traditional Jewish service specialists—shoemakers, barbers, butchers, watchmakers, jewelers, and tailors. In 1970, there were 6,300 Jewish people, 5.6% of the entire population (Jewish Roots, 2009). Strikingly, only my family bore the last name Gindler.
There were also several families with the last name Gendler in the city. They were neither our relatives nor even acquaintances, despite the similarity in the phonetics of the surname. One can find a magnitude of handwritten documents where Kindler and Gendler are used interchangeably, as “i” and “e” can be easily confused. (There are numerous archived ship passengers manifests, death certificates, drafts registration cards, etc. where Gindler or Gendler is spelled in different ways). But according to family folklore, the surname Gindler is unique and should not be confused with Gendler. Overall, there are many more Gendlers than Gindlers.
The quest for the origin of my last name started back in Ukraine but did not yield any compelling results. A German-language teacher suggested that in German, Gindler means a person who can do something with his hands (e.g., manual worker). His conclusion was that Gindler might be derived from the word “handler.” It did not sound convincing, as I intuitively felt that applying the root “hand” was not appropriate in our case.
After I had emigrated to the US, I continued researching the origin of my family name. Eventually, I came across a pretty thick volume of Jewish Family Names and Their Origins: An Etymological Dictionary by Heinrich W. and Eva H. Guggenheimer (Guggenheimer, 1992). I read through all of the relevant “G” entries in the dictionary but did not find Gindler. Then I remembered that the Yiddish “H” was often changed to the Russian “G,” so Hindler became Gindler in the Russian Empire. By searching “H” entries in the dictionary, I found names that could be traced back to the Russified Gindler and Gendler.
Hindler is the last entry in the sequence of the following surnames: Hindi, Hindy, Hindels, Hinden, Hindin, Hindes, Hindus, and finally Hindler.
The first two last names, Hindi and Hindy, are of Yemenite origin and mean “Indian.” This last name was probably given to or taken by the merchants who traveled to India or traded Indian goods.
There is another surname, Gindi, which is phonetically equal to Hindi. Hindi originated from Arabic. It means “soldier.” There are members of the Syrian Jewish community whose last names are Gindi. (The founder of “Century 21” department stores, for example). Therefore, Yemenite Hindi and Arabic Gindi sound the same but stem from different tongues and belong to different Jewish diasporas.
My family is of Ashkenazim origin. Fluent Yiddish mixed with heavily accented Russian was spoken there by the older generation until 1986, when my grandmother passed away. The “Indian” and “soldier” etymologies definitely do not apply to us.
As for Ashkenazim origin, authors of the Etymological Dictionary considered the root “hind.” The word “hind” is of Old English or Germanic origin. It is related to the Dutch hinde and German Hinde. It, in turn, originated from an Indo-European root meaning “hornless,” shared by Greek kemas, “young deer.” “Hind” is a female deer, especially a red deer in the contemporary English interpretation (There are other meanings, but we are interested in this one).
From the word “hind” in M.H.G. (Middle High Germanic) derives the female name Hinde, Hinda, or Hindel in Yiddish. Furthermore, the surnames of interest are derived from these proper names. One of the most common ways to turn a proper name into a last name is the use of patronymics and matronymics (Guggenheimer, 1992). The last name Hindler (Gindler) is a matronymic created from Hinde/Hindel by applying the suffix –er and shifting/adding the letter –l for euphony (I guess). So there is a three-step process in the Gindler etymology: In the beginning, it was a deer (Yiddish “hind”); second, an allusion to a beautiful hind led a Jewish female to be named Hinde; then, matronymic manipulation created a family name (Gold, 2009).
Ashkenazic society in the 18th – 19th centuries (the period when Jews were required to take surnames) was traditionally patriarchal. It is quite unusual that the family name was adopted from a female ancestor in the presence of a living husband. But if it happened, there are several explanations There is an assumption that in the case when the husband was often on a commercial trip and was absent from home for months, the household for the sake of convenience began to bear the name of the wife, for example, “Hinda’s household.” There are other plausible suggestions: Either a woman was especially well known or influential, or a woman did not have a husband (widow/unwed). In any cases, descendants would adopt a matronymic based on a female ancestor’s name. In patriarchal societies, matronymic surnames are far less frequent than patronymic. This explains the relative rarity of the surname Gindler. Therefore, Gindler is a descendant of a household governed by a powerful/famous/unwed Hinda.
But this is not the end of the story, as multiple methods produced Jewish last names. Matronymics are just one case of many. Another case is the utilization of Biblical narrative. One Biblical verse is especially relevant to the Gindler last name. The tribe of Naphtali in the blessing of the patriarch Jacob is compared to a swift gazelle, which in European countries is taken to mean a deer:
“Naphtali is a hind let loose: He giveth goodly words” (Genesis 49:21).
Once again, a hind is at the center of the etymological study of the Gindler last name. The word formatting remains the same as with a matronymic instance:
Hind (a) → Hindler → Gindler
But the meaning of the name is quite different. Some individuals were probably deeply attached to Naphtali by various links: pure sympathizers with this particular tribe; the bearer of the name Naphtali or its sobriquets; great orators, famous for their speeches. I doubt that someone from Ashkenazim could definitely trace his origin to the tribe of Naphtali. In any case, by the time they had to choose a family name, they constructed a logical path:
Naphtali → Hind (a) → Hindler → Gindler
Thus, in this case, Gindler is one who associated themselves, in some way, to the Naphtali tribe.
There is another interpretation worthy of mentioning. It is well documented that “in some old cities, notably Frankfurt/Main and Prague, houses were identified by signs that often depicted animals; the inhabitants later adopted these house names as family names” (Kleiman, 2004). It is not a vast stretch of the imagination to envision a picture of a deer present on some houses. It is possible that dwellers of these houses were Jews, and some of them decided to use the Yiddish word for “deer” as a family name. In this case, there is no explicit link to the name Hinda or Naphtali. The meaning of the surname is simple—one from the house with a picture of a deer on a wall. However, only a few Jewish families were allowed to live in German cities at any time; therefore, the number of family names acquired by this method would not be significant (Guggenheimer, 1992). That, in turn, might account for the rarity of this last name as well.
And yet, there is another plausible theory of the origin and meaning of my last name. The source can be found in the illustrated Hebrew manuscripts of the 13–16th centuries. At the end of the 13th century, Jewish artisans and scribes began to illustrate sacred scrolls with all kinds of dwellers of the animal kingdom. It was a spontaneous resistance to the pictorial denigration imposed on Jews by Christians in Medieval Europe. Those illustrations, besides the aesthetic value, also had allegorical implications. “Drawing on a wealth of animal imagery from the Bible, and Spanish Jewish poetry, by identifying the deer with Israel they would be the hart and hind pursued by the baying dogs of Christian persecution . . .” (Schama, 2013). This time, a deer was not associated with a female name, or even with one of the Israelite tribes—Naphtali—but with all of Israel. Thus, a new meaning of the last name Hindler (Gindler), could be the following: one belonging to Israel, an Israelite themselves.
By now, we already know that the word “hind” is hard-wired to the Gindlers’ last name; it is their imperishable root and intrinsic essence. The word Gindler is linked to the animal kingdom, and a hind becomes Gindler’s holy animal.
In summary, the sense of the family name Gindler falls to the following categories (in order of decreasing probability):
- One who is from the household of influential Hind-a
- One who is associated with the tribe of Naphtali
- One who belongs to Israel
- One who is from a dwelling with a sign of a deer
As for the surname Gendler, the Etymological Dictionary explains Hendler as a “merchant.” Our intuition did not disappoint us: Gindler and Gendler indeed mean different things. And yes, there were more merchants than famous Hindas. The old German-language teacher was not quite right either, as I suspected a long time ago.
So, what is next, Gindlers? I would suggest, first of all, refrain from hunting deer; second, start decorating houses and front yards with images and sculptures of our sacred animal. It may bring luck!
Gold, David L. 2009. Studies in Etymology and Etiology. Publicaciones de la
Universidad de Alicante
Guggenheimer, Heinrich W., Guggenheimer, Eva H. 1992. Jewish Family
Names and Their Origin: An Etymological Dictionary. Ktav Publishing House, Inc.
Jewish Roots. https://www.j-roots.info/forum/viewtopic.php?t=183
Kleiman, Yaakov. 2004. DNA and Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient
Hebrews. Devora Pub.
Schama, Simon. 2013. The Story of the Jews. Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492
The Bible. English Revised Edition. http://biblehub.com/erv/genesis/49.htm