The Geezer’s Version

Ali Baba departed for the town a well satisfied man. By Author Laurence Housman Publisher Bodder and Sloughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Back in March, I went to a presentation put on by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta. I only moved to Calgary ten years ago, so my Alberta roots are not deep. I had been wanting to make contact with the local genealogy and family history community, though, and this presentation seemed like a good occasion. I’m glad I went. Dave Obee spoke about resources and techniques for researchers with Eastern European ancestors. Dave is highly accomplished in this field. His bio reveals that he is Editor in Chief of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C., and a columnist for Internet Genealogy and Family Chronicle. He has also written more than a dozen books, given over 400 presentations, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Victoria for his work as a genealogist and historian. Way to go, Dave! These are stellar achievements.

A man in the audience mentioned that he had lived in Los Angeles as a child, and he asked how he might be able to recover an application his mother had submitted to the old U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. He believed his mother’s application contained a genealogy of his maternal line, which he hoped to obtain for his own use. Dave was not able to provide any helpful tips on this point. No one asked my opinion, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope for this effort. Back in the day, I dealt with the INS on behalf of a near and dear one, and I was not impressed with this agency’s ability to retrieve information.

Los Angeles is my hometown, so I spoke to the man after the presentation while we were waiting to have a word with Dave Obee. I didn’t catch the man’s name, but he was a friendly, gregarious fellow—a schmoozer, or someone who liked to pass the time in conversation. He had not visited Los Angeles in many years, but he fondly remembered the beaches at Malibu and—perhaps not so fondly—the high school he attended in Inglewood. At length our talk turned to family history. I confess that my mind sometimes wanders while my face appears to be paying attention, and I did not catch every detail of his lengthy account. I thought about the chores lined up for me that Sunday afternoon and the writing I hoped to do afterwards. I also noted the geezer’s Adam’s apple, which bobbed merrily among the wattles beneath his chin, and the lively animal twitching of his mustache points.

In my distraction, I missed part of his account, which concerned the landing at Ellis Island of a mythical immigrant from Bialystok or Grodno-Gobernia or somewhere like that. Arriving apparently without travel documents, a blank spot on the ship’s manifest, the man stumbled when asked his name. “Schoyn vergessen,” he allegedly said—I’ve forgotten—and that is how a simple shtetl Jew became known as Sean Ferguson.

A nice story, but this bubbe meise is implausible in several respects. Immigration inspectors at Ellis Island did not record immigrants’ names at all—they verified traveller’s names against ship manifests, which were carefully prepared by employees of the shipping companies as immigrants purchased their tickets. Passenger manifests were richly detailed, listing not only names but also other data bearing on an immigrant’s admissibility to the United States, such as age, gender, birthplace, and religion. Because the shipping lines were forced to return inadmissible passengers to Europe at their own expense, they took pains to make these lists accurate.

Ellis Island inspectors were frequently immigrants themselves, fluent in the languages of the arriving migrants. Where a language gap did exist, it was typically bridged by one of the many interpreters employed at the port. Inspectors were further enjoined from changing passengers’ names except in cases of demonstrable error or upon an immigrant’s specific request, and when they did change names, they did so without obliterating the original spelling.

These practices are detailed in a variety of authoritative works, such as Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was) by Philip Sutton, New York Public Library, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy; My Ancestor’s Name Was Changed at Ellis Island by Kimberly Powell, an instructor at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy and the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists; and American Names: Declaring Independence by Marian L. Smith, Senior Historian for the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

So much for the veracity of these old tales.

Of course, you can always take the position that facts don’t matter, that the worth of a story lies in its insights, moral truths, piquancy, or whatever other quality you value. But this position doesn’t bear much critical weight. In nonfiction, the facts do matter; they are the foundation that supports everything else. The real problem with the geezer’s version is that it misleads us, guiding us towards mistaken inferences. It presents Sean Ferguson as a cipher, a hapless nebbish whose very identity could be summarily effaced by any minor official. By extension, it also presents the Jewish people as pawns, helpless to resist the misrule of kaiser and czar.

In this sense, the name-change-at-Ellis-Island story recalls the 1787 decree of Emperor Joseph II, which forced Jews in the Hapsburg Empire to adopt surnames. Paul Johnson also recounts this episode in A History of the Jews. Austrian bureaucrats produced lists of adoptable names. Many Jews were arbitrarily assigned names derived from categories: Weiß (white), Schwartz (black), Groß (large), and Klein (small). Wealthy Jews could “purchase” desirable names, such as Lilienthal, Edelstein, or Saphir, which were derived from flowers or precious stones. The poor had to accept the whims of spiteful civil servants, becoming in the process Eselkopf (donkey’s head) or Galgenstrick (gallow’s rope). Similar instances of forced naming occurred in other parts of Eastern Europe. So there was a time when petty officials could foist off names on powerless Jews. It just wasn’t at Ellis Island.

The apocryphal tale of the name change at Ellis Island arrests the immigrant’s tale at arrival, truncating the story of immigration and adaptation. It does not tell us how American Jews actually changed their names (in most cases, bureaucratically, at naturalization) and omits as well the more interesting story of why they changed them (to blend in, to get ahead, to adopt a new identity). All of these things bring us to the rich history of assimilation and striving and the way immigration altered the Jews’ relationship with the state in which they lived.

But that is a broader, more interesting and instructive tale than poor Sean Ferguson can ever tell us.

© 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.

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