The Myth: Truths Of Jewish Genealogy

by Schelly Talalay Dardashti | Oct 21, 2010

Sorry to burst your bubble, but it simply isn't true. Your family name was never changed at Ellis Island.

If I had only one penny for each time I've heard this myth, I might be on a beach in Tahiti right now. Even those who should know better - including writers for the New York Times - swear it is true because "it happened to my grandmother."

This is perhaps the number one myth surrounding immigrant genealogy, and Jewish genealogy research in particular. However, there are several more. Here are some myths - and the truth behind them.

1. Our Family Name Was Changed At Ellis Island

Not one case of a name change has ever been documented at Ellis Island, according to Marion L. Smith, senior historian of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Clerks merely checked off names against passenger manifests written prior to embarkation on the ships bringing immigrants to the US. We know it was before the ship sailed as we see N.O.B. (Not On Board) notations for some individuals who later turn up on another manifest.

So how did our ancestors' names change?

Some people traveled on other people's papers. My mother's paternal great-grandfather had received his ticket and papers to travel to New York with his wife and three youngest children. Unfortunately, he died before they could leave Suchastow (then Galicia, now Ukraine). Ever-practical, Great-Grandma sold his papers and ticket to another man and used the money to have new clothes made for the children.

Some people decided to change their name while en route. Our first TALALAI relative, who arrived in 1898, met a man on the ship who knew some English. He told Mendl to change his name because no one would give a job to Mr. Tell-a-Lie. He became TOLLIN in Springfield, Massachusetts and wrote home about the new name. Many immigrant relatives adopted the new name on arrival, although others decided on TALLIN, TAYLOR, TOLL and TALL.

Some adopted the family names of relatives who provided tickets, jobs, housing. We are still looking for one elusive branch of TALALAI from Mogilev, Belarus. Three brothers went to work in the fledgling Baku oil industry in 1904 and were eventually brought to Philadelphia by their sister's husband. They were so grateful that they changed their names to his (FEINSTEIN). We've been looking for them ever since, with not much luck.

2. Everything Was Destroyed During The War

Not true. While wars and natural disasters did destroy many records across Europe, copies of government-ordered records were often sent to central repositories and they still exist. In our own family, the Mogilev archives' burning and destruction were described to me by eyewitnesses. When we began researching, we found that the Minsk Historical Archives had copies of many important Mogilev records, among them revision lists, religious personnel, Crown Rabbinate vital records, and even the

second synagogue register for the Vorotinschtina agricultural colony near Mogilev. The colony was founded by our family and others in 1832. We received some 700 records from that register plus 300 other records from the archives. We are still looking for the first synagogue register dating from the colony's founding.

Although the Holocaust destroyed people, records were preserved. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, archives across Eastern Europe began slowly opening up to international researchers . Amazing troves of material, back to the 1600s, have been located in some places. Some archives are easier to work with and more cooperative, and many volunteer special interest groups, such as those on JewishGen have organized long-term translation projects to provide access to linguistically-challenged researchers around the world. Many projects are based on microfilmed records available at Salt Lake City's Family History Library and via loan to its branches around the world.

3. Our Town Was Wiped Off The Map

The truth is that the town is likely still there - minus its Jewish population. Some 300 people in our agricultural colony of Vorotinschtina (12 miles SW from Mogilev) were murdered on one day in October 1941, by the German Einsatzgruppen. The houses still remain although dilapidated, the green fields described by immigrant relatives are still there, and the adjacent village of Zaverezhye seems to be growing. A researcher even spoke to an elderly woman who, as a child, had known some of my relatives. The records were kept in Mogilev, with copies sent to Minsk.

Finding your town may be your first problem. The way you heard it may not be the proper pronunciation or spelling. One excellent source is Avotaynu's "Where Once We Walked" which lists thousands of names using local, Yiddish, geographic name variants and where more information on each can be found. JewishGen's ShtetlFinder will help you locate your town even if you can't spell it, using phonetic soundex searching.

4. No One Remembers Anything

Researchers may need to dig to find senior members who remember family stories. If you have a senior family member, run, do not walk to interview them (audio and video). An African proverb says "When an elder dies, it is as if a library has burned down." It is as much as what they have personally experienced as what they heard from their own parents and grandparents. While many seniors may not remember what they had for breakfast, their childhood recollections are clear. Ask around, see if there is an aunt, uncle or cousin. Talk to everyone, reach out to distant relatives and you might find a person who remembers everything. Read up on interview techniques and oral history tips.

5. The Family Stories Are Impossible.

No family story is too fantastic or too laughable. Write down everything you've heard, no matter how silly it seems. You might not be able to prove the story, but someone in the future might. Every story has a kernel of truth at its heart, although embellished over the years. We need to find the truth in each story, or at least leave clues for our descendants to follow. So write down every story, no matter how implausible.

In our TALALAY family, every generation heard "this was our name when we left Spain." Everyone laughed, although many family members looked very Mediterranean. In New York, my mother was mistaken for, and spoken to, in Italian, Greek, Spanish and Portuguese - she answered in English or Yiddish! We believed we were Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Ashkenazim - although each generation passed along the "story." When I began my research, I found some two dozen families with Sephardic names in Mogilev (Abravanel, Portugal, Pines, Luria, Abugof/Abuhof/Aboav and others). No one could tell me why there was such a cluster of Sephardim in a relatively out-of-the-way place and we still don't know why.

When I began looking in Spanish archives in Lerida and Barcelona (Catalunya), we unearthed six indexed mentions of TALALYA or TALALLA. The earliest was dated 1353, signed by kosher winemaker Mosse (Moshe) TALALYA of Lerida, Jewish community members and municipal authorities. In 1396, two brothers, Jacob and Astruc, were on a long list of those who had disappeared from Fraga and adjacent towns.

Genealogy is history, so why did they disappear? In 1391, following a series of catastrophic riots, murders and forced conversions to Catholicism by the Inquisition, many Jews left. Many went north to southern France, known then as French Catalunya, and eventually into Germany, Poland, Lithuania and points east. It is an exceedingly rare name anywhere, and generally anyone bearing that name is either a Polish Catholic (I have my own theories about their unknown history) or related to our Belarus (with branches in Ukraine and Russia) Jewish family.

6. There's No Paper Trail To Follow

Genetic genealogy helps if the paper trail has crumbled. DNA testing is helping thousands of genealogists and family historians find connections or prove/disprove theories and family stories. For those searching Jewish ancestors or who suspect they have Jewish heritage, the best company to test with is FamilyTreeDNA.com because it has the largest database (including the largest Jewish DNA database) of all companies in the field combined, thus increasing the probability of finding matches.

It currently includes more than 300,000 individual samples, and more than 9,000 family and geographic projects, which increase daily. In addition to various Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, the new Family Finder test can locate up to 5th cousins on paternal and maternal lines for an individual. I plan to provide an additional article on DNA genetic genealogy focusing on Hispanic and Jewish research.

7. What This Means To Researchers

There are recognized myths and there are truths. Go to JewishGen's Infofiles to learn more about how to get started with a host of expert articles on many topics.

Many talented people continue to develop tools to help researchers find mangled surname spellings in existing databases and who also create databases from new materials. Dedicated volunteers spend hours translating vital records for the linguistically-challenged, develop expertise in special records and share it with researchers around the world.

Jewish genealogy's mantra is always: If you can't find what you're looking for today, look for it tomorrow.

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