Tracing our immigrant ancestors is often more challenging than we might have expected. Ancestry ProGenealogist, Janette Silverman, discusses how your ancestors’ names may have changed alongside their environment.
Once I asked a client what her grandparents’ names were. The clients’ parents and grandparents were long deceased, she didn’t have any siblings, and didn’t know her mother’s maiden name. She told me that her grandparents’ names were ‘Granny’ and ‘Gramps’. She was serious. That was her moment of truly confronting how empty her knowledge was of her family’s history.
In my own family, my grandmother was born in the U.S. Her parents and grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. For decades I tried finding out from her what the original family name was. My usually chatty grandmother always changed the subject. It was only when she was weeks from her death of cancer, that one day, she blurted out their name, said that I’d been asking about it and now I knew it. She refused to say anything further. There are many things that our ancestors kept silent about and we probably will never know why.
Although the U.S. was the final destination for many Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe, it was far from the only place they traveled to in search of a new life. They fled their homelands to escape anti-Semitism, often in the form of state sponsored or supported programs; financial hardships; and punitive laws preventing among other things, freedom of movement from one village to another, engaging in certain crafts or professions; and often even the ability to marry.
A safe haven for Jewish immigrants from Galicia in the Austrian Empire and the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, was Britain. Although anti-Semitism existed in Britain, life for Jews fleeing the repressive environment of Eastern Europe was much safer. From 1880-World War I, somewhere between 120,000 and 150,000 Jews arrived in Britain. They primarily settled in east London.
These immigrants are often difficult to trace, since one of the things they did upon arriving in their new home was to change their names in an attempt to assimilate. The names under which they arrived often sounded very foreign – not only weren’t they in English, but they weren’t names that bore any resemblance to names we might find in continental Western Europe – their names were mostly Yiddish. Sometimes the way these immigrants’ names were written was probably due to clerical error. Most of the immigrants could write and read Yiddish but not English.
Let’s take the case of Pesya, daughter of Moische Zelig Lesetzky (or maybe Leyetski). She was born sometime between 1875 – 1878 in Lithuania which was then part of the Russian Empire. By 1897, she was married to Louis Lipschitz and living in Spitalfields under the name Pollie Lipchitz. She was identified with this name, noting that her name was formerly Leyetski, on the birth record of her son, Barnet. In 1899, at the birth of her next child, her name was recorded as Leyetsker. In 1902, at the birth of her 3rd child, her maiden name was recorded as Lizitski and in 1904, at the birth of her 4th child, as Lietsky.
Pesya left England in 1904 as Polly Lipshitz to join her husband who had left England a few months earlier. Pesya’s parents also wound up in the U.S. and shortly after their 1908 arrival, Moische Zelig Lesetzky became Morris Marcus. His wife, Feige Taube became Doris. Although they adopted these names in the U.S, if they had gone to England, they probably would have wound up with the same or similar names there.
Several of Louis’ siblings also immigrated to England, and unlike Louis, remained there. Their descendants still call England home. Louis’ brother, Shmuel Nosen Lipschitz settled in England before 1907. By his 1908 marriage, he was known as Nathan Samuel. Their sister, Shtere, who also settled in England took the name of Sarah. Sarah married a man whose surname was Levenstein and was recorded on their marriage record as Levingstine. One of their children changed his surname to Langham.
Finding Jews from Eastern Europe prior to their immigration depends on being able to identify their original names as well as the specific towns where they were born and lived in order to find documentation of their lives. This means combing through records of the people in whom you are interested as well as their collateral relatives, and spending time in cemeteries looking for their gravestones which often have their names written in Hebrew letters.
Jewish research has many twists and turns and frequently requires the ability to search onsite and read records in many different languages, often for one family!
Janette Silverman has been working in genealogy for 35 years, and specialises in Eastern European Jews, the Holocaust, and immigration to the United States. Join Janette Silverman at RootsTech London where she’ll be speaking on Eastern European Jewish immigration to England.