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The Myth of Ellis Island, Part 1

Joseph and Celia with granddaughter Belle

In my previous blog post, “What’s In A Name,” I used the example of my second great grandfather, Yussel Wilkimirsky (also known as Joseph Friedman) to illustrate a challenge faced by genealogists and family historians when researching an immigrant ancestor who changed their name (sometimes very drastically) upon coming to the United States. After placing the URL to this blog post on several Facebook pages, I was taken back when I was chastised by a competent, well-known and respected Jewish genealogist, who commented that I was “keeping alive the myth about having names changed at Ellis Island…never happened,” when I quoted a passage from “The Book of Tziril: A Family Chronicle,” written by my late grandmother, Bessie Lipschultz Waldman. In her book, Bessie relates how her grandfather Yussel chose the surname of Friedman, because “In America, he [Yussel] was a free man. The inspector at the immigration center had advised him to change his name [to Freedman] and he [Yussel] had never regretted [changing] it [from Wilkimirsky to Friedman].” [See End Note #1]

While it is not my belief that Yussel had his name changed at the point of his immigration into the United States, I understand where that competent Jewish genealogist was coming from with the comment. It is not uncommon for the average person to believe that an immigrant ancestor, whose surname had somehow been transformed, had his name changed at Ellis Island. If one puts the phrase "name change at Ellis Island" into an internet search engine such as Google, one of the first returns will be a 2013 New York Public Library blog post written by Philip Sutton, that address this easily made but erroneous assumption.

I pondered the comment offered by the competent Jewish genealogist and decided that it should be taken as an opportunity to develop a research question; namely, when did Wilkimirsky officially become Friedman? I intend to use this research question to participate in an upcoming study group using the book, “Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case,” 4th Edition Revised, (San Jose, California: CR Publications) 2014, authored by Christine Rose and I hope to publish the results of my efforts in the study group here on Genealogy! Just Ask! blog.

In preparation for my research into this question, I decided to turn to an old favorite of mine, “A Dictionary of Jewish Names and their History,” written by Benzion C. Kaganoff. [See End Note #2]. Kaganoff lists several factors that could account for name changes, including the fact that legally, in the United States, to change one’s name was a very easy process. There was always the potential for misunderstandings of the name due to language and alphabet (for example Cyrillic or Yiddish) transliteration issues; the desire to assimilate; and, of course, the immigrant's embrace of their new country, to truly become an American. I tend to believe that my grandmother’s story is mostly true, that when Yussel came to appreciate the freedoms he enjoyed in his new country, he could hardly help but to declare himself a “free man.”

Thank you for reading! Comments, criticism, and correction of fact always welcome.

End Notes

#1 Bess Waldman, The Book of Tziril: A Family Chronicle (New York, New York: Adama Books, Second Edition 1988), page 101.

#2 Benzion C. Kaganoff, A Dictionary of Jewish Names and their History (New York, New York: Schocken Books, 1977) pages 67—68.

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