What’s in a surname?

Lara Diamond
Lara Diamond is the president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. (Courtesy of Lara Diamond)

By Bob Jacobson

Dick Goldman, past president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland, still gives talks on Jewish genealogy now that he has retired to Boynton Beach, Fla. One of his favorite topics is Jewish surnames and their meanings. He often begins by asking audience members how many of them have family names that were changed at Ellis Island.

“The last time I asked this question, 50 out of 70 people raised their hands,” said Goldman, who is also past general manager of Pearlstone. “I can always count on about 90% saying that their surname or that of a close relative was changed at Ellis Island.”

Then Goldman presents the hard truth — the story of immigration officials changing people’s names at Ellis Island is a myth. He documents how the process actually worked. Immigration clerks simply checked the lists of passengers compiled by European steamship companies transporting immigrants. Clerks at Ellis Island were not required or even allowed to rewrite immigrants’ names. “People argue and swear that their grandpa told them the clerk at Ellis Island changed the name. The pushback is vociferous,” Goldman said.

In her 2021 book, “People Love Dead Jews,” Dara Horn describes a similar experience when speaking at a Jewish institution. “After the talk, I was mobbed by people — angry people … each of whom explained to me that while maybe most people’s names weren’t changed at Ellis Island, their great-grandfather was the exception,” Horn writes. “None of these people offered any evidence, other than to assure me, ‘My great-grandfather wouldn’t lie.’”

Popular culture has also reinforced the Ellis Island name change myth. In the 1974 film “Godfather II,” a young Italian boy arrives alone at Ellis Island. When asked his name (through an interpreter), he tells the immigration official “Vito Andolini,” then answers that he is from Corleone. The official records the child’s name as Vito Corleone. In a cartoon entitled “That Fateful Day At Ellis Island,” a man in cape, tights and a shirt with a large letter ‘S’ stands before an immigration clerk who says, “Your Name Is ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?’ … Not Anymore.” And then there is the old joke about a Jewish immigrant at Ellis Island, nervous and overwhelmed by the arrival process. When asked for his name he replies, “Shayn fergessen” (Yiddish for “I’ve already forgotten”). The immigration official decrees that the new arrival is now Sean Ferguson. Goldman hears this last joke at virtually every Jewish Heritage Club event.

If names were not changed at Ellis Island, when and how were they changed?

Goldman said that most surnames — 65 to 75% in his research — were not changed. But among those that were changed before leaving the old country, some took other families’ surnames to avoid the Czarist Russian draft; some were the result of adoptions; others changed from mothers’ maiden names taken at marriage back to fathers’ surnames.

It is probable that other names were changed at European ports of embarkation. “It is certainly possible that the (ship’s) captain or his secretary got the names wrong,” Nick Fessenden, historian at the Baltimore Immigration Museum, said in an email. “In Baltimore, most of the ships came from Bremen, and the German captain may not have understood the nuances of Polish or Hebrew.”

“Family stories talk about names being changed at Ellis Island, but in every such case, I’ve been able to find documentation of the family beginning to use the current version of the name at some point after immigration, not during the immigration process itself,” said Lara Diamond, JGSMD’s current president. “I have no idea how or why this myth became so pervasive.”

Goldman thinks he knows a major reason. “Most Jews who came here during the biggest wave of Jewish immigration, from the 1880s to the early 1920s, did not talk about their lives in Europe,” he said. “Only the rare ones did. This story is not about hard times in Europe. This is the one story that got told, and it’s a really interesting story.”

In her 2019 book “A Rosenberg By Any Other Name: Jewish Name Changing in America,” historian Kirsten Fermaglich studied court petitions for surname changes in New York City from the early 20th century to the present. Those requests were disproportionately Jewish — especially from the 1930s into the 1960s — and overwhelmingly motivated by the desire to overcome discrimination in education and employment. That is the true story of Jewish name changes in America.

Bob Jacobson is a freelance writer.

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