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"His name was changed at Ellis Island" #names

peter.cohen@...
 

Smoke pours from the ears of veteran genealogists when they hear “his name was changed by the immigration authorities”. Numerous analyses of the experience of immigrants through Ellis Island and Castle Garden offer convincing evidence that US immigration authorities used ship’s manifests and the landing card pinned to the immigrant’s clothing to determine their name and did not change anyone’s name.

 

So, why is the “my grandfather told me his name was changed at Ellis Island” so widespread?  Either an entire generation of immigrants conspired to lie to their children about how their name changed, or SOMETHING actually happened.

 

Consider the case of my grandfather, who arrived via Castle Garden in 1891. All I know for sure is that his name was KEMAK on the 1891 manifest and COHEN on his 1895 marriage certificate. The story my uncle told me was “when they asked his name, he gave his full Hebrew name, including HaKohain and they wrote down Cohen.” My uncle would have heard this directly from his father, who was the actual immigrant. So where does the story come from?

 

A possibility:

The day he arrived, my grandfather was 19 years old, alone in a strange country, whose language and customs he did not know.  It seems likely to me that, when he left the immigration hall, tired and bewildered, he would have been relieved to find a helpful Yiddish speaker from an immigrant aid society (perhaps HIAS?) outside the building. That person would have given him advice and direction. Part of that advice might have been “no one here can pronounce your name, your name should be _______.” It could have been as simple as the aid society person writing down the immigrant’s name in Roman letters, so that the immigrant would know how to write it. (Note that the stories often say “they wrote down…”  Wrote down where? Apparently, immigrants left the customs hall with no documentation from the US government. So, if their name was written down and given to them, someone other than a government agent did the writing.)  In my grandfather's case, the name KEMAK was easy enough to pronounce, so that would not be a reason to change it.  I lean in the direction of someone writing his name in English, based on his Hebrew name and not his civil name. I do not know who that someone was, but it almost certainly was not a representative of the US government.

While we think of our grandparents as worldly and wise, at 19 years old, they would have been neither, and could easily make the false assumption that the HIAS person had some kind of government authority.

JoAnne Goldberg
 

My Lithuanian ancestors arrived in the 1880s pre-Ellis, and since I
haven't found ship manifests I still don't know where they entered the
country, or under what name. However, family lore is that they had to
buy papers to travel from Lithuania to the United States, and could not
get their own so bought them from someone named Goldberg. Possible? And
if so, what became of the paperless Goldbergs left in Lithuania? Curious
if anyone has a similar origin story.
--
JoAnne Goldberg - Menlo Park, California; GEDmatch M131535
BLOCH, SEGAL, FRIDMAN, KAMINSKY, PLOTNIK/KIN -- LIthuania
GOLDSCHMIDT, HAMMERSCHLAG,HEILBRUNN, REIS(S), EDELMUTH, ROTHSCHILD, SPEI(Y)ER -- Hesse, Germany
COHEN, KAMP, HARFF, FLECK, FRÖHLICH, HAUSMANN,  DANIEL  -- Rhineland, Germany

 

Jules Levin
 

Re why was this story perpetuated if there is no basis?

I would counter:  Do Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans,
German-Americans, Polish-Americans, etc, etc., have the same stories of
name changing?   Maybe the question is, why did specifically Jewish
families tell this bubbe  mayse?   My own theory is that many immigrants
were met at the dock by relatives who already were here and established
enough to invite siblings or cousins from the old country.  And the
first thing they heard was that "in America the family name is ......" 
All my cousins assured me that "Faivasovich" must have been changed at
Ellis Island to Morris.  When thru Jewishgen I found out that
Faivasovich was on the manifest, our founding greatgrandfather was
operating a business in Chicago 2 yrs after arrival with the name
Faivasovich, our grandmother was married in 1897 with that maiden name,
and ONLY in the census of 1900 hundred did Morris appear and Faivasovich
disappear!  Still they had believed the bobbe mayse. My own theory is
that the change on arrival by immigration officials (half of whom were
naturalized citizens themselves and among them spoke 40 languages) was
the least embarrassing and simplest to tell the children when they
started to ask about their names.

Jules Levin


On 6/25/2020 9:36 AM, peter.cohen@... wrote:

Smoke pours from the ears of veteran genealogists when they hear “his
name was changed by the immigration authorities”. Numerous analyses of
the experience of immigrants through Ellis Island and Castle Garden
offer convincing evidence that US immigration authorities used ship’s
manifests and the landing card pinned to the immigrant’s clothing to
determine their name and did not change anyone’s name.

So, why is the “my grandfather told me his name was changed at Ellis
Island” so widespread?  Either an entire generation of immigrants
conspired to lie to their children about how their name changed, or
SOMETHING actually happened.

Consider the case of my grandfather, who arrived via Castle Garden in
1891. All I know for sure is that his name was KEMAK on the 1891
manifest and COHEN on his 1895 marriage certificate. The story my
uncle told me was “when they asked his name, he gave his full Hebrew
name, including HaKohain and they wrote down Cohen.” My uncle would
have heard this directly from his father, who was the actual
immigrant. So where does the story come from?

A possibility:

The day he arrived, my grandfather was 19 years old, alone in a
strange country, whose language and customs he did not know.  It seems
likely to me that, when he left the immigration hall, tired and
bewildered, he would have been relieved to find a helpful Yiddish
speaker from an immigrant aid society (perhaps HIAS?) outside the
building. That person would have given him advice and direction. Part
of that advice might have been “no one here can pronounce your name,
your name should be _______.” It could have been as simple as the aid
society person writing down the immigrant’s name in Roman letters, so
that the immigrant would know how to write it. (Note that the stories
often say “they wrote down…”  Wrote down where? Apparently, immigrants
left the customs hall with no documentation from the US government.
So, if their name was written down and given to them, someone other
than a government agent did the writing.)  In my grandfather's case,
the name KEMAK was easy enough to pronounce, so that would not be a
reason to change it.  I lean in the direction of someone writing his
name in English, based on his Hebrew name and not his civil name. I do
not know who that someone was, but it almost certainly was not a
representative of the US government.

While we think of our grandparents as worldly and wise, at 19 years
old, they would have been neither, and could easily make the false
assumption that the HIAS person had some kind of government authority.

Jules Levin
 

On 6/25/2020 10:49 AM, JoAnne Goldberg wrote:
My Lithuanian ancestors arrived in the 1880s pre-Ellis, and since I
haven't found ship manifests I still don't know where they entered the
country, or under what name. However, family lore is that they had to
buy papers to travel from Lithuania to the United States, and could not
get their own so bought them from someone named Goldberg. Possible? And
if so, what became of the paperless Goldbergs left in Lithuania?
If Tsarist Russia was anything like the USSR, the paperless Goldbergs
could easily get replacement papers for the "lost" papers from a local
official for the price of a bottle of vodka.

Jules Levin






Curious
if anyone has a similar origin story.
--
JoAnne Goldberg - Menlo Park, California; GEDmatch M131535
BLOCH, SEGAL, FRIDMAN, KAMINSKY, PLOTNIK/KIN -- LIthuania
GOLDSCHMIDT, HAMMERSCHLAG,HEILBRUNN, REIS(S), EDELMUTH, ROTHSCHILD,
SPEI(Y)ER -- Hesse, Germany
COHEN, KAMP, HARFF, FLECK, FRÖHLICH, HAUSMANN,  DANIEL  -- Rhineland,
Germany

Susan&David
 

Immigration inspectors did not ask an immigrant what his name was.  It was already right there on the ship's passenger list and on the immigrants tag.
One name was changed at Ellis Island. A woman was discovered,  dressed as a man and traveling with a man's name.

https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/name-changes-ellis-island

David Rosen
Boston, MA



On 6/25/2020 1:50 PM, Jules Levin wrote:
Re why was this story perpetuated if there is no basis?

I would counter:  Do Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans,
German-Americans, Polish-Americans, etc, etc., have the same stories of
name changing?   Maybe the question is, why did specifically Jewish
families tell this bubbe  mayse?   My own theory is that many immigrants
were met at the dock by relatives who already were here and established
enough to invite siblings or cousins from the old country.  And the
first thing they heard was that "in America the family name is ......" 
All my cousins assured me that "Faivasovich" must have been changed at
Ellis Island to Morris.  When thru Jewishgen I found out that
Faivasovich was on the manifest, our founding greatgrandfather was
operating a business in Chicago 2 yrs after arrival with the name
Faivasovich, our grandmother was married in 1897 with that maiden name,
and ONLY in the census of 1900 hundred did Morris appear and Faivasovich
disappear!  Still they had believed the bobbe mayse. My own theory is
that the change on arrival by immigration officials (half of whom were
naturalized citizens themselves and among them spoke 40 languages) was
the least embarrassing and simplest to tell the children when they
started to ask about their names.

Jules Levin

On 6/25/2020 9:36 AM, peter.cohen@... wrote:

Smoke pours from the ears of veteran genealogists when they hear “his
name was changed by the immigration authorities”. Numerous analyses of
the experience of immigrants through Ellis Island and Castle Garden
offer convincing evidence that US immigration authorities used ship’s
manifests and the landing card pinned to the immigrant’s clothing to
determine their name and did not change anyone’s name.

So, why is the “my grandfather told me his name was changed at Ellis
Island” so widespread?  Either an entire generation of immigrants
conspired to lie to their children about how their name changed, or
SOMETHING actually happened.

Consider the case of my grandfather, who arrived via Castle Garden in
1891. All I know for sure is that his name was KEMAK on the 1891
manifest and COHEN on his 1895 marriage certificate. The story my
uncle told me was “when they asked his name, he gave his full Hebrew
name, including HaKohain and they wrote down Cohen.” My uncle would
have heard this directly from his father, who was the actual
immigrant. So where does the story come from?

A possibility:

The day he arrived, my grandfather was 19 years old, alone in a
strange country, whose language and customs he did not know.  It seems
likely to me that, when he left the immigration hall, tired and
bewildered, he would have been relieved to find a helpful Yiddish
speaker from an immigrant aid society (perhaps HIAS?) outside the
building. That person would have given him advice and direction. Part
of that advice might have been “no one here can pronounce your name,
your name should be _______.” It could have been as simple as the aid
society person writing down the immigrant’s name in Roman letters, so
that the immigrant would know how to write it. (Note that the stories
often say “they wrote down…”  Wrote down where? Apparently, immigrants
left the customs hall with no documentation from the US government.
So, if their name was written down and given to them, someone other
than a government agent did the writing.)  In my grandfather's case,
the name KEMAK was easy enough to pronounce, so that would not be a
reason to change it.  I lean in the direction of someone writing his
name in English, based on his Hebrew name and not his civil name. I do
not know who that someone was, but it almost certainly was not a
representative of the US government.

While we think of our grandparents as worldly and wise, at 19 years
old, they would have been neither, and could easily make the false
assumption that the HIAS person had some kind of government authority.

Sally Bruckheimer
 

"However, family lore is that they had to
buy papers to travel from Lithuania to the United States, and could not
get their own so bought them from someone named Goldberg"

The thing is, there was no reason that they had to call themselves anything in particular in the US. Until driver's licenses and Social Security, they could be Rachmil Szmelkowicz one day, Hymie Goldberg the next, and Tom Jones the day after.

Sally Bruckheimer
Princeton, NJ

Bob Roudman
 

Most if not all names were changed by the immigrant after arrival in the
US. Clerks were very careful not to change or modify names. Since the
manifest was used as proof of legal arrival immigration and Nat would
sometimes go back to the manifest to verify identities. Many times the
declaration would mention the name change made by the immigrant. It is
largely myth that the clerks changed the names at either Ellis Island or
Castle Garden.

YaleZuss@...
 

I'd like to ask people to reserve judgment until I have received the document I requested from NARA.  If it is what I expect it to be, it should resolve any serious questions about the "no-involuntary-name-change" meme.  People need to understand that the process was nowhere near as pristine as advocates for the meme assume, and once one realizes how messy it was, all kinds of possibilities arise.
 
Incidentally, in reply to David Rosen, in my conversations with the USCIS Historians' Office, they reported that what happened in the case of Mary Johnson/Frank Woodhull was a change in listing rather than a change in name.  The evidence I have establishes that she continued to live as Frank Woodhull.
 
Yale Zussman

Feldman, Daniel
 

It is a fallacy that names were changed at Ellis Island. Immigration personnel used the names on the passenger manifest. They were forbidden to change any name as that might be contributing to fraudulent purposes. Immigrants changed their names after the fact . In New York State for instance, one could change their name merely by adopting the new one. It was legal as long as there was no attempt to commit fraud.

Daniel Feldman

Art Hoffman
 

According to family lore, when my father age 13 and/or uncle Morris age 15 first attended public school, their teacher could not pronounce their last name (Goichmann).  The G sounded like "huh" and the ch was guttural sounding.  The teacher said she would henceforth call them Hoffman.  When they came home that day and told my grandfather.  He said OK we are now Hoffman. 

Jules Levin
 

This "meme" as you call it, is discussed at length in an official
statement from the Immigration Service, and is available at some .gov
web page.  I suggest you reconsider your skepticism until you have read
it.  As a government official document, it does not qualify as a meme,
at least as I understood the term when I was publishing articles in the
field of semiotics.

Jules Levin


On 6/25/2020 3:52 PM, YaleZuss via groups.jewishgen.org wrote:
I'd like to ask people to reserve judgment until I have received the
document I requested from NARA.  If it is what I expect it to be, it
should resolve any serious questions about the
"no-involuntary-name-change" meme.  People need to understand that the
process was nowhere near as pristine as advocates for the meme assume,
and once one realizes how messy it was, all kinds of possibilities arise.
Incidentally, in reply to David Rosen, in my conversations with the
USCIS Historians' Office, they reported that what happened in the case
of Mary Johnson/Frank Woodhull was a change in /listing/ rather than a
change in /name/.  The evidence I have establishes that she continued
to live as Frank Woodhull.
Yale Zussman

Jules Levin
 

Of course!  Note the assumptions underlying the claim:  the immigration
officials were ignorant hicks who just didn't get them foreigners [half
were themselves naturalized, and understood 40 languages, no doubt
including Yiddish]; they were so stupid they risked their jobs to
frivolously violate regs to change names; burocratic rules were so
casual (compared to the enlightened present) that they could do whatever
they wanted to; etc., etc. Our parents pass on mishegas they heard from
their parents.

Jules Levin



On 6/25/2020 4:09 PM, Feldman, Daniel wrote:
It is a fallacy that names were changed at Ellis Island. Immigration
personnel used the names on the passenger manifest. They were
forbidden to change any name as that might be contributing to
fraudulent purposes. Immigrants changed their names after the fact .
In New York State for instance, one could change their name merely by
adopting the new one. It was legal as long as there was no attempt to
commit fraud.

Daniel Feldman

Diane Jacobs
 

One of my biggest finds was the actual surname of my maternal grandfather's
name and what hooked me on genealogy.
They came in 1888 to NYC from Vilna AND I FOUND them using the 6 volume set Migration from the Russian Empire, edited by Ira D. Glazier.  It covers the 1880s til 1891.  There you can look at all the names
and ages of those who indicated they were Russian.  It goes by date, name of ship and then listing of passengers. Knowing first names and approx. ages of their children, I was able to find my family of 7 in 1888.

It is a wonderful set of books which can be found in large public libraries and universities.  Hope this helps.


Diane Jacobs 


Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

-------- Original message --------
From: Jules Levin <ameliede@...>
Date: 6/25/20 2:16 PM (GMT-05:00)
To: main@...
Subject: Re: [JewishGen.org] "His name was changed at Ellis Island" #names

On 6/25/2020 10:49 AM, JoAnne Goldberg wrote:
My Lithuanian ancestors arrived in the 1880s pre-Ellis, and since I
haven't found ship manifests I still don't know where they entered the
country, or under what name. However, family lore is that they had to
buy papers to travel from Lithuania to the United States, and could not
get their own so bought them from someone named Goldberg. Possible? And
if so, what became of the paperless Goldbergs left in Lithuania?
If Tsarist Russia was anything like the USSR, the paperless Goldbergs
could easily get replacement papers for the "lost" papers from a local
official for the price of a bottle of vodka.

Jules Levin






Curious
if anyone has a similar origin story.
--
JoAnne Goldberg - Menlo Park, California; GEDmatch M131535
BLOCH, SEGAL, FRIDMAN, KAMINSKY, PLOTNIK/KIN -- LIthuania
GOLDSCHMIDT, HAMMERSCHLAG,HEILBRUNN, REIS(S), EDELMUTH, ROTHSCHILD,
SPEI(Y)ER -- Hesse, Germany
COHEN, KAMP, HARFF, FLECK, FRÖHLICH, HAUSMANN,  DANIEL  -- Rhineland,
Germany


--
Diane Jacobs, Somerset, New Jersey

David Shapiro
 

Perhaps there was a difference between a full name change to a spelling modification. My cousin arrived in the US in the 1930's from Germany. His name was SCHULMANN. He told me that the immigration officer told him that if he wanted he could drop the second 'N', and that to do so later would be complicated. He agreed, and from then on his name was SCHULMAN.

David Shapiro
Jerusalem

Susan&David
 

Your cousin may have changed the spelling at the suggestion of the immigration officer, but the immigration officer, himself did not do it.  

David Rosen
Boston, MA

On 6/26/2020 7:39 AM, David Shapiro wrote:
Perhaps there was a difference between a full name change to a spelling modification. My cousin arrived in the US in the 1930's from Germany. His name was SCHULMANN. He told me that the immigration officer told him that if he wanted he could drop the second 'N', and that to do so later would be complicated. He agreed, and from then on his name was SCHULMAN.

David Shapiro
Jerusalem

ahcbfc@...
 

Family lore said my great-grandfather Kasdan had his name changed at Ellis Island to Cohen because the clerk could not understand and asked "Are you Jewish?" Makes no sense because Ellis Island had multiple agents with knowledge of multiple languages. A genealogist suggested it might have happened in Amsterdam because they had fewer agents at that departure port. The ship manifest had Cohen, yet, when his wife and children arrived a few years later,they used the name Kasdan.

Eva Lawrence
 

This idea of a perfect bureaucracy is just not possible. No doubt it was in the authorities' interests to present a picture of infallibility, in order to scare people into compliance, but but you only have to think of a ship full of excitable and exhausted immigrants, some suffering from cholera, perhaps, many of them filthy from the long voyage in a crowded steamship belching smoke and reliant only on sea-water for washing,  to realise that the situation at Ellis Island can't have been as orderly as some of you imagine it, and that the well-trained clerks or the people they were interrogating, may sometimes have suffered from an understandable impatience when the clerks couldn't read the captain's bad hand-writing on the manifest or didn't understand a particularly thick local dialect.  The clerks wanted to get home for their supper, the passengers just wanted to reach dry land, so shoulders were shrugged and a name change sanctioned.. 
I'm not saying that name-changes were the rule, or aren't sometimes just a glib excuse for lack of research, but no-one can be positive that they couldn't have occurred, whether willingly or unwillingly.. 
--
Eva Lawrence
St Albans, UK.

Jules Levin
 

For the record, there was a medical check as well, and people with
cholera were not admitted.  A significant % of passengers were not
admitted for health reasons, so passenger liners had an incentive to
check for health at ports of entry.  Your dramatic script for the
arrival scene does not comport with the known facts.  Actually, there is
a simpler theory to account for the myth:  the real weak link in the
chain was not the arrival but the departure in Europe.  By the way, all
ships' manifests still exist:  an unreadable entry would not be a
hypothetical, but a matter of record.  To quote Liza Doolittle:  show me!

Jules Levin


On 6/26/2020 6:02 AM, Eva Lawrence wrote:
This idea of a perfect bureaucracy is just not possible. No doubt it
was in the authorities' interests to present a picture of
infallibility, in order to scare people into compliance, but but you
only have to think of a ship full of excitable and exhausted
immigrants, some suffering from cholera, perhaps, many of them filthy
from the long voyage in a crowded steamship belching smoke and reliant
only on sea-water for washing,  to realise that the situation at Ellis
Island can't have been as orderly as some of you imagine it, and that
the well-trained clerks or the people they were interrogating, may
sometimes have suffered from an understandable impatience when the
clerks couldn't read the captain's bad hand-writing on the manifest or
didn't understand a particularly thick local dialect.  The clerks
wanted to get home for their supper, the passengers just wanted to
reach dry land, so shoulders were shrugged and a name change sanctioned..
I'm not saying that name-changes were the rule, or aren't sometimes
just a glib excuse for lack of research, but no-one can be positive
that they couldn't have occurred, whether willingly or unwillingly..
--
Eva Lawrence
St Albans, UK.

Jules Levin
 

Notice that your story is not about a change wrought by an official; it
was merely personal advice, to be followed, or not, as the arriver
desired.  No one is disputing that such events might have taken place. 
Perhaps the immigration officer [by the way, half the immigration
officers at our southern border have Hispanic surnames] was himself a
landsman advising a new former countryman.

Jules Levin


On 6/26/2020 4:39 AM, David Shapiro wrote:
Perhaps there was a difference between a full name change to a
spelling modification. My cousin arrived in the US in the 1930's from
Germany. His name was SCHULMANN. He told me that the immigration
officer told him that if he wanted he could drop the second 'N', and
that to do so later would be complicated. He agreed, and from then on
his name was SCHULMAN.

David Shapiro
Jerusalem

jewishgen@...
 

Eva when the immigrants were called forward in turn they showed their landing card which contained their details including name, manifest page and number on page that had been copied from the original manifest on departure.   The entries were then looked up on the appropriate manifest page.  They had to confirm some details on the manifest and proceeded.  It has been estimated that each immigrant might spend just 30 seconds with the clerk.  See https://stevemorse.org/ellis/EllisMythNames.htm

It has been noted elsewhere that if you look at books about immigration published at that time or newspapers at that time (now searchable online) you will find no references to name changes.

So, we have many people repeating this story about name changes but several examples have been checked that show that those immigrants continued to use their original manifest names in subsequent census returns, marriage certificates etc and only later did they start using a different surname. I am not aware of any cases where there is documented proof that a name change took place at Ellis Island.  

Until somebody can show documented proof that this took place the evidence does not support it.  
Please supply proof if you have some. 

There are similar family tales of immigrants arriving in UK ports (Glasgow included) being told they had arrived in the USA and being duped by the crew to leave the ship.  Again there is no proof of these claims and some of the claims are simply not possible.

Michael Tobias
Glasgow, Scotland