Historically, my family were European Jews who would have lived in the Prussian, Russian or Austrian/Hungarian Empire, but given the historical stability of the region, they probably lived in all three. Family accounts all point to Sosnowiec and research indicates they would have also lived in Bedzin. Most people assume the name originated from Yiddish, but evidence suggests it is rooted in German.
While living in Germany, I quickly learned how to make German’s laugh in any social gathering. All I have to do is tell them that my last name is Cugelman. Once they were chuckling, I’d tell them that historical, my family name was Kugelfresser. This would usually put them on the floor. It may be hard to imaging how a last name could provoke such a response, but the term ‘kugelfresser’ is not just strange in German—it’s outright absurd.
People who speak a little German or Yiddish normally assume the name means bullet maker, cake eater, or just ball eater, but the name Kugelfresser is composed of two words. First is the noun ‘kugel’ which means a sphere or ball. For example, when buying ice cream in Germany, one would purchase a kugel, a scoop of ice cream. Historically the term refers to the bullets used in muskets. These bullets were not bullets in the modern sense, but round balls that were stuffed down the barrel of a gun and mixed in with gun powder. The second word is ‘fresser’, which is the verb for an animal to eat. In English, we only have a verb for humans to eat, but in German, the verb ‘fresser’ is a special verb reserved for animals. The only time you would apply it to a human, is to insult or make fun of them. For example, in English, we use the expression “you’re eating like a pig”, and likewise, in German if you say someone is eating in the ‘fresser’ sense, you’re insinuating that they’re eating like a pig or wild beast. Combined, these two words could be taken to mean ‘the act of eating balls like a pig”.
On one occasion, I met a German literature student who actually recognized the term kugelfresser from historical texts dating back to the 1800s.She described a kugelfresser as the front-line solders that were shot to death from cannon fodder. On the battle field, cannons were filled with cannon fodder, a mixture of small metal balls and rocks. They would be shot at enemy lines in a shot-gun like manner. In this sense, kugelfresser describes how the bodies of solders reacted like animals as they were blown to bits from cannon fodder.
Nobody knows where the name comes from, so I’ll have to put forward some theories to explain it’s origin. The first theory is that the source of my last name is rooted in a combination of two factors: the introduction of last names during the 1800s and anti-Semitic attitudes towards European Jews.During this time, Napoleon assigned last names to individuals so that government institutions could store meaningful records about individuals. Imaging trying to operate a nation with first name records only? How would you dig up any records about any particular individual?The rationalism of the French Revolution caught on and this lead to the imposition of last names across other European regions.
I am not sure when or where, but I suspect that my family received their last name from either the Prussian or Austro-Hungarian Empire. In both countries, last names were imposed, but in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, anti Semitic attitudes were more prevalent. As a result, Jews were often forced to adopt insulting or derogatory last names. These derogatory last names not only served as an outlet for prejudice, but they also served as a way for local officials to extort bribes from Jews by forcing them to pay fees to change their last name. Ironically, when Jews paid to change their last name, they often chose high status last names. I believe this is why many Jewish last names include status words from nature such as gold, silver or mountain(stein); or high status names from historical Jewish tribes such Levi or Cohen.
My second theory is that the name was distributed to my ancestors during the 1800s; however, instead of being a derogatory name, it may have been given out as an honourable name to an esteemed war veteran or solder.Every once’n a while, Hollywood shows some super hero catching bullets with their teeth as an ultimate act of strength.It’s possible, the name actually had a positive, hero-like meaning, suggesting the Kugelfressers were such tough solders that they ferociously ate bullets for breakfast.
Perhaps my family were too poor or too cheap to change our derogatory last name. Or perhaps they were great solders who esteemed it? I’m not sure I’ll ever know, but it makes people laugh and what more could you want from a last name.