12 October 2007

German emigration and debunking a myth

Ben G. Frank, in Boston's Jewish Advocate, begins by providing details about his grandfather's voyage to America.

Like thousands of Jewish immigrants that year, on Aug. 4, 1900, Benni Freiden, along with his family, boarded a ship in Bremenhaven, Germany, for the long voyage to Baltimore, Md.

And like thousands of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century – whether by design or the whims of immigration officials – Benni Freiden, a tall, distinguished looking man with a white beard, who always wore a large, black yarmulke, would change his last name to Frank.

Frank describes the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, which garnered the award of 2007 European Museum of the Year. It is purportedly the largest and most modern museum dedicated to emigration in Europe. It opened in 2005 and a half-million visitors have toured it. Other features are multimedia productions of emigration history over 200 years, as well as on contemporary global migration.

Biographies of past emigrants are available, with four representing those millions of Jews who left their homes willingly or by force due to various reasons. The four are Carl Laemmle, Erich Koch-Weser, Hertha Nathorff, and Hannah Lewinsky-Koevary.

According to Frank, the museum is trying to organize a cooperative-travel program with Berlin's Jewish Museum.

Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe 3rd edition, A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and the new A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.

Read the article here.

Although the story describes a genealogically relevant museum and its environs, Frank does perpetuate mythological name changing at arrival ports ("the whims of immigration officials"). Let's try debunking this myth again: Not one documented case of a name change at a US port has been found. Passenger manifests were prepared before embarkation. American immigration officials spoke many languages to help in processing immigrants. However, nothing stopped the immigrant from changing his name - at his own whim - the minute he left the immigration processing center ... and many did.

Some were told by earlier immigrants about their family's new American name, and began using it as soon as they landed; others adopted completely different names for a host of reasons. Some kept changing their names for decades before the spelling finally stabilized. This can be seen when tracing some families through years of city directories.

Names were changed by many immigrants, not only those bearing long complicated names with few vowels.

Our relatively simple TALALAY became TOLOLAY, TOLOLAI, TOLIN, TOLINI (must have been in his Italian period!), TOLLIN, TALLIN, TOLL, TALL, TAYLOR and the impossible-to-find FEINSTEINs in Philadelphia. It took six years to find my great-grandfather's naturalization certificate in New Jersey as he had used a very strange spelling of the name - discovered quite by accident.


  1. I agree with you that it was not the practice of the clerks at U.S. ports of arrival. And I know you were thinking about surnames when you wrote: "Not one documented case of a name change at a US port has been found".

    Okay, so mine is a first name, but I have a record that changed from Ludwig Petersen (at the Hamburg departure records) to Ludorinetti Petersen on arrival at New York in November 1878.

    Of course this could be childish hijinks (he was ten years old). But it's documented in handwriting, and I'd be happy to share it with you if you want to see it.

    In the USA Ludwig/Ludorinetti was known as Louis Petersen.

    I'm still trying to figure out how he came up with Ludorinetti!

  2. Hi, Devorah.

    Yes, I was commenting on family names, but you pose an interesting question.

    Was this on the actual handwritten passenger arrival manifest where Ludwig was crossed out and the Italian-sounding name written in?

    Extremely strange, unless the handwriting was so bad on his travel documents - and 1878 was really early for good arrival records.

    Devorah, if you'll write to me at the comment email and give me your private email address then we can take a look at this.


    Aah - the mystery of history!