‘Sean Ferguson,’ Continued

On Language

By Philologos

Published May 01, 2008, issue of May 09, 2008.
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The file on Sean Ferguson isn’t closed yet. A few weeks ago, as you may remember, I brought to your attention a letter received from Forward reader Eldad Ganin with the information that a Jewish resident of Syracuse named Tracy Ferguson may have invented the tall tale of the Yiddish-speaking immigrant who answered “Shoyn fargesn” (“I’ve forgotten”) when asked for his name and was Christened by an immigration official accordingly. Tracy, it appears, was the grandson of a Jew who entered the United States in the 1860s as “Samuel Forgotson.”

Now, Mr. Ganin has written again, with a cogent explanation of what actually may have happened. In Alexander Beider’s “A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames From the Russian Empire,” he tells us, the name “Fargesen” is attributed to three different Eastern European Jewish households. As all three hailed from the same general area of southwestern Ukraine and Moldavia, they were most likely related to one another and to Tracy Ferguson’s grandfather, one Shmuel or Shmil Fargesen, who Anglicized his name upon arriving in America. A son of Shmuel-Samuel’s then changed Forgotson to the more conventional but un-Jewish-sounding Ferguson, about which the son’s son made up a comical story that became part of American Jewish folklore.

And still on the subject of the same column. In it, after citing letters from readers pointing out that American immigration officials could not have at whim invented or changed immigrants’ names because these were copied from ships’ manifests that had been prepared before embarkation in Europe, I observed that, even if this was the case, the whimsy could have been that of the European shipping clerks who drew up the manifests. In response, I’ve received two additional letters, both arguing that such clerks, too, were dependent on prior records. Thus, Jeremy Frankel, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society, states:

“Most, if not all, immigrants had papers of one kind or another that permitted them to leave their country of origin. They may also have had visas or passports, which were usually letters, not the booklet-style type of document we are familiar with today. Individuals and families would troop on board their designated ship at ports of departure like Antwerp, Danzig, Bremerhaven, or Hamburg and proffer their papers to a crew member who would fill out the manifest…. Unless it was written in Cyrillic (or Hebrew, which I very much doubt), the crew member would have copied down the name as written.”

And Arthur S. Abramson, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Connecticut, seconds the motion, and adds:

“It must have been very rare for Eastern European Jewish voyagers to arrive at ports with their names available in written form only in Hebrew script with Yiddish orthography. From birth onward, vital records were kept by the nearest town hall, or sometimes by the local church, for Jews too…. Thus, the 18th and 19th-century records for my father’s family in Lithuania are all in Polish. (At the time, Lithuania was part of Congress Poland or Russian Poland.) Having scanned many such records, both here and in Eastern Europe, I would have to say that the clerks in these registry offices must have been quite familiar with Jewish given names and surnames.”

Although I would not presume to debate with Messrs. Frankel and Abramson, who know more about the subject than I do, I would nevertheless offer two caveats. The first is that not a few Jewish families emigrating from tsarist Russia left it illegally, in most cases paying border smugglers to guide them across the Austrian or German frontier. This was most often done when there were sons in the family who were of draft age and had reason to fear being seized by the authorities, and such families did not carry passports or identifying documents that a German, Dutch or Belgian shipping clerk could rely on. The Latinization of their names, which they themselves knew how to spell only in Yiddish, would indeed have taken place at the port of departure.

Secondly, there is the documented fact that, until World War I, Jewish families from Poland who immigrated to America or elsewhere arrived at their destinations with their names spelled according to German orthographic rules (Silberstein, for example) and not Polish ones (for example, Zylberszstajn), which began to appear only after Polish independence in 1918. How does this square with Professor Abramson’s contention that, throughout the 19th century, Jews in Polish or Lithuanian areas had Polish documents to travel with? Isn’t it more likely that, prior to World War I, we are dealing with lists compiled by German-speaking shipping clerks or crew members solely on the basis of Hebrew spellings and Yiddish pronunciations?

And so, unlike the autonomous immigration official at American ports of entry — whose existence, I now agree, is mythical — the possibility of a European clerk or ship’s mate making independent decisions about the spellings of immigrant names cannot be so easily ruled out. Between an Eastern European orqrbjt leny and an American Samuel Fortgotson, there still could have been a German shipping clerk’s Schmiehl Vergessen.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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