Were "nephews" sometimes really cousins? #general

Erika Gottfried

I have a number of photo postcards, written to my husband's grandfather, Max Rubin, an immigrant from Ostrowitz, Poland.  The postcards are written by different individuals (n both Yiddish and English) each of whom refers to himself as "your nephew."  The problem is that Max didn't have as many nephews as there are senders.  I'm trying to figure out what's going on here.

I know it's common in many families for older relatives to be referred to honorifically as "aunt" and "uncle" when they're not literally the aunt or uncle of the person addressing them.  Were there similar instances in which there were honorific "nephews" who were really younger cousins?

Erika Gottfried,  Teaneck, NJ     <erikagottfried53@...>

Miriam Bulwar David-Hay

Yes, it's possible they were younger cousins. It's also possible that they were grand-nephews rather than nephews. It's also possible that they weren't actual nephews but were the husbands of nieces, who were writing on behalf of their wives (as was seen as proper in some circles). I've seen both those situations in my own family.

All the best,
Raanana, Israel.

Jeff Lieberman

I hope someone can answer this question since I've been dealing with a similar situation. I have a photo postcard to my grandfather from Lviv in 1920 from his "niece," but I haven't been able to find anyone with a name similar to hers who could be his niece.

Jeff Lieberman

Steven Bloom

I've definitely seen friends called cousins. In fact, in on case, I traced one of these friends' families back several generations just to see how they might be related, Nothing. They are barely even from the same general region of Poland. 

So, if you don't see an obvious relationship, there possibly isn't one. Though, without further research its hard to draw definite conclusions.

Steve Bloom
Central Virginia, USA


IMO, it's absolutely possible. Because my grandmother had her children late in life, some of her cousins were actually young enough to be nieces and nephews, so that's how she referred to them and they called her 'aunt.'

Shelley Mitchell

My grandmother had neighbors in Kolomea. When they all arrived in NYC, they would visit and my grandmother always referred to them as distant cousins. I later learned that this was her reference to her close friends from back home. I verified that through my research.
Shelley Mitchell 

Deborah Blinder

When my mother immigrated to the United States after World War II, she was sponsored by an uncle and aunt who had left Germany just before the beginning of the war. I knew them when I was small, and my mother always called them Onkel Otto and Tante Paula. She called their son, who was about a year younger than my mother, her cousin, and I always assumed they were first cousins. Long after the deaths of my mother, her cousin, and her uncle and aunt, my research revealed that Onkel Otto was actually my mother's first cousin once removed, and his son was my mother's second cousin. It's too late to ask, of course, but I assume my mother referred to these cousins as uncle and aunt out of respect, since they were of her parents' generation and acted, in a way, as surrogates for her parents, who did not survive the Shoah.  
Deborah Blankenberg (JewishGen ID #613395)  Lodi, CA   dtblankenberg@... 
Researching BLOCH/BLOCK (Germany to New York, Colombia and Missouri),
BLINDER (Kishinev to New York via Poland? and Paris),
KUSHER/KUSZER (Lodz vicinity to New York via Paris), GOLDSCHMIDT (Germany)


When I was growing up in suburban London in the 1950s, I was taught to call our neighbours (who weren't related in any way and weren't Jewish) uncle and aunt. A 'respect for your elders' thing.

Henry Best,
London, UK.

Searching:- BEST (Netherlands and UK), SAMUEL(S) (UK), PEZARRO (Italy, Portugal, Netherlands, UK)

Nicole Heymans

Hi Erika,

My maternal grandparents were German Jews, my grandfather's family were from Westphalia and Lower Saxony, my grandmother's from Posen Province, Prussia; later Breslau (Wrocław, lower Silesia) and Berlin. I've seen the term "Vetter" (strictly speaking, cousin) applied quite loosely to more distant relatives. Also parents' cousins (even second cousins and inlaws) called "uncle" and "aunt"; I remember meeting my mother's "tante Reine" who after some digging turned out to be my mother's aunt's husband's sister-in-law's sister. Take a deep breath and read that again slowly. There was also a couple who were probably only business relations, but also friends, of my grandfather's generation, who my mother and uncle called "aunt" and "uncle".

So my grain of salt is: if anyone was calling someone "aunt" or "uncle" they would sign "nephew" or "niece".


Nicole Heymans, near Brussels, Belgium




I would like to add my own first hand experience as an answer to you. My father's eldest brother was older than him by 10 years. My Uncle's 1st son was 18 years older than I was & the 2nd son is 15 years older than me. I was raised to call both of these 1st cousins as "Uncle so & so" out of deference to the age difference. The remaining 2nd son & I had & still have a big brother/little sister relationship & stopped calling him 'Uncle' when I was about 13 years old & using only his & his wife's given names. When his wife & I are talking about him in the 3rd person she ALWAYS refers to him as 'Uncle so & so' & I have to tell you that neither one of us really notice the distinction. When I introduce him to people, he is introduced as 'my Uncle'. My children call him 'Uncle' & I had to explain in detail, our blood & lineage relationship because they really did think we were siblings. He is now 83 years old & I thank G-D everyday for giving me the best Uncle/Big Brother a girl could have ever wished for. Although his parent's were really my Uncle & Aunt, they stepped up to the grandparent plate for me & my siblings. Sometimes our emotional feelings about people are the truths of the relationship & not necessarily the true lineage.

Pieter Hoekstra

In Netherlands your cousin is called your nephew, nicht for neice. neef for nephew. Maybe it is something similar in Poland.

Zalman Usiskin

Endogamy in Jewish families made (and makes) for multiple ways in which family members are related.  My great-grandfather Avrohom’s first wife Esther died after having four daughters.  Then, following a custom of the time, Avrohom married Esther’s younger sister Liba and had eight more children, one of the eight being my grandfather Jacob.  Then Esther’s eldest daughter Sarah Malke married her mother’s brother Aron – that is, Sarah Malke married her uncle, a marriage allowed under religious law.   Sarah Malke and Aron had eight children.   As a result, my grandfather can be viewed as both an uncle and a cousin to those children – an uncle on their mother’s side (since he is Sarah Malke’s ¾ brother) and a first cousin on their father’s side (since his mother Liba is a sister to Sarah Malke’s mother Esther).   When I was growing up, I could not figure out why so many people in our family’s “cousins’ club” called my grandfather “Uncle Jake” – I thought this was a title placed on him due to his age.  But, when we sorted out the relationships in the family, It was clear he was the uncle of these people (and granduncle to their children) as well as their cousin.   

Erika Gottfried

Wow!  Thanks for all the responses, every one of them helpful in different ways.  Even if it makes my head spin ... Another challenge for genealogists.
Erika Gottfried
Teaneck, New Jersey


You did not say what language these letters were written in.   We had a photo of my husband's grandfather with two people which was translated as "nephews"  Knowing that this was
probably not true,  we inverstigated further.   What was originally written was in Yiddish and said "Schwester sohn"  This is litterally ;"Sister's son"  which would be a nephew. 
However, we found out from an expert at YIVO that this was old terminology that was, in fact, used for a cousin. 

Hope this helps.  Stay well. 
Avivah R. Z. Pinski
near Philadelphia, USA
Researching: Zuchman in Sarnaki, Karczew, Warsaw Poland
Reznik in Drohiczyn nad Bugiem, Siemiatische, Siedlce Poland
Rifczes in Lemberg, Vienna  
Kopekin in Polatsk,& Besonkovich in Belarus
Familiant & Koifman in Bessarabia and Ukraine
Sondak in Vitebsk, Belarus and Rehitza, Latvia
Aginsky and Slonimsky in Minsk 
Aronofsky in Belarus & Lithuania