Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1915
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1915 (Photo/Library of Congress)

Round 2 of the ‘Ellis Island Jewish Name Game’

The recent JTA article by Andrew Silow-Carroll — “No one lost their Jewish last name at Ellis Island. But we gained a safe haven”) — is accurate, as far as it goes.

But there is more to the story, some of which will never be known.

Veteran genealogists become apoplectic when someone tells them “My family’s name was changed at Ellis Island.” It is absolutely true that U.S. immigration officials did not change anyone’s names. Immigrants did not receive any documents when they went through Ellis Island, so to say that “they wrote down …” cannot be true.

But the story does not end there.

The first thing to know is that the immigrants often used the term “Ellis Island” to describe their immigrant experience and not simply what happened in the physical space of the Ellis Island immigration office. The huge number and similarity of the family stories is too uniform to accept the usual genealogists’ view that the immigrant simply made up the story. The key elements of the story are “they asked me my name” and “they wrote down …”

The questions, then, are “who asked their name?” and “where and why did they write it down?”

Bear in mind that these immigrants were often in their late teens and 20s. They found themselves far from home in a strange culture with a different language and alphabet. Most likely, they were Yiddish speakers and knew the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew cursive. Perhaps they also spoke Russian and knew the Cyrillic alphabet. Most of them did not know the Roman alphabet when they arrived.

In the process of becoming acculturated, they would have sought out resources, perhaps through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. I have heard that HIAS did not participate in changing names, but this is something that cannot be known at this point.

Another, more likely possibility is the night-school classes that many immigrants attended to learn English. That was an environment in which “they asked my name” would have been extremely likely. The first thing that would have been likely to happen in an introductory English class was teaching the student their name in English. Upon hearing an immigrant’s name, the teacher might have written down that name on a piece of paper and given it to them. That teacher may have taken it upon themselves to simplify the person’s name. So, for example, someone named Levandowsky might have become Levy.

The name changes prior to about 1920 were not about not sounding Jewish. They were usually about sounding American.

My grandfather arrived in August 1891 under the name Isak Kemach. By the time his 1895 marriage license was issued, he was Isaac Cohen. He told his children, “When I arrived, they asked me my name. I told them Yitzchak ben Mordechai HaKohain and they wrote down Cohen.”

He never said immigration officials did it. He said it happened when he arrived.

This easily could have been the result of an interaction with a helpful person who was providing him with the American version of his name, who based it on his full Hebrew name. Kemach was not hard to pronounce and Cohen certainly sounds more Jewish than Kemach, so neither would be motivations for the name change.

At this point, it will never be possible to know what actually happened with those old name changes, but to simply dismiss them as lies that parents told their children is too simplistic and ignores the number and consistency of the stories.

There were definitely people who changed their names to avoid antisemitism.  These tended to be the children of immigrants. Once they became college educated and were shut out of employment, they began to Americanize their names.

Thus, a family of people named Rotkowitz changed their name to Rodwin and quickly found employment that was closed to them before the name change. Anti-semitism was probably the prevailing reason for name changes in the period of 1920 to 1950. But prior to that, the changes were probably more for simplification or a result of miscommunication with someone who could write in the Roman alphabet when the immigrant could not.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Peter Cohen
Peter Cohen

Peter Cohen has been doing amateur genealogy for 12 years. He is retired and lives in Pleasanton.