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How Did Ashkenazi Jews End Up With Famous Non-Jewish Last Names?

It’s a fact: Ashkenazi Jews often bear surnames also used by Christians.

What, if anything, does that tell us?

Surnames used by a population often contain clues about the historical, linguistic and cultural past of the group. Certain names reveal migration patterns, others provide clues about the occupations of the ancestors and some names provide clues about archaic words that have since disappeared from the common vernacular.

Jewish surnames are no exception. But because Jews in the Diaspora have long been living as a minority among a non-Jewish majority, their names often share similarities with those used by their non-Jewish countrymen.

That hasn’t stopped many from proposing alternative myths for how these famous non-Jewish names came to attach themselves to Jews. Some scholars maintain that Christian authorities assigned Jews Christian surnames, while others speculate that the shared names imply conversions into and out of the two groups. The most imaginative people add supplementary details to describe the scenarios of the conversion: Some surnames, they say, reveal situations when a Christian recognized the superiority of Judaism and started to profess it. Usually, such stories are about nobles or former clergymen, and other scenarios involve more romantic stories in which a Christian (usually also a noble) falls in love with a beautiful Jewish young woman and converts to her religion in order to marry her.

Scholars find the evidence for their theories all over the world. In the Russian Empire, there were Jews with royal surnames belonging to princes like Romanov and Trubetzkoy, as well as names typical amongst the Christian Orthodox clergy, such as Arkhangelsky and Pokrovsky, and names shared with important representatives of Russian culture, such as Lomonosov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. Finally, Jews had names shared by famous Soviet and post-Soviet politicians, such as Ulyanov (Lenin’s true last name), Gorbachev and Putin.

There were Jews in the Ukraine with the surnames of Cossack leaders, such as Chmielnicki (Khmelnytsky), Gonta and Mazepa, and in Belorussia there were Jews with surnames shared by famous Polish literati, such as Mićkiewicz and Sienkiewicz. We also find Jewish bearers of surnames used by the Polish nobility, such as Wiśniowiecki and Potocki. The Polish national hero Kościuszko shared his surname with a Jewish family in northeastern Poland.

There were German Jews named Kant and Heidegger, Schiller and Mann, Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann, Kohl, Schröder and Merkel.

Why can we not assume that these Jews with gentile names had ancestors who were Christian converts to Judaism?

The reason is quite simple: Such conversions would have been illegal. Even during the 18th century in Eastern Europe, if discovered, a convert to Judaism — and those who had proselytized to them — were burned alive.

This was the fate in 1738 of the Russian officer Alexander Voznitzyn, who converted to Judaism, and his Jewish acquaintance Borokh Leibov.

According to the Jewish cultural tradition, the Count Walentyn Potocki (Valentin Pototzky), known as a Ger Tzedek (righteous proselyte), was also burned at the stake in Vilna in 1749.

So how did Jews come to have these non-Jewish last names?

Some surnames shared by Jews and gentiles were a consequence of geography. In 1804, Gordon was one of the most common Jewish surnames in Lithuania. Was this in honor of the 1787 convert to Judaism Lord George Gordon, a British politician of Scottish noble descent?

Certainly not. Gordon was a Lithuanian Jewish surname well before the 19th century: Aaron Gordon was a court physician of the Polish King Jan III Sobieski at the end of the 17th century. Another member of the same family, Jekuthiel Gordon, came from Lithuania to Padua, Italy to study medicine in the 1720s. The name Gordon became common precisely because its Jewish bearers lived in or near the city of Grodno (now Hrodna in Belarus) during the 17th-18th centuries.

Although conversions indeed took place in the 1700s and 1800s, most proselytes to Judaism were not making their previous identities public, and therefore, no Jewish person in Eastern Europe would have inherited a surname of his or her Christian ancestor.

However, the opposite did indeed occur, which we know thanks to the 1850 law int he Russian Empire prohibited Jews from changing their surnames, even after converting to Christianity. As a result, at the beginning of the 20th century, certain people borne into Christian families bore the surname of their paternal Jewish ancestor. Among the examples are the names Eisenstein, Rubinstein, Eichenbaum and Shklovsky. These Jewish converts to Christianity, however, were rather marginal.

So what explains all of the other shared surnames?

Some have a simple explanation: Many surnames describe occupations, physical qualities or moral characteristics. A smith might be named Kowal or Kuznetz; a tailor might go by Portnoy, Krawiec, Schneider or Schröder. Your shoemaker might be a Sapozhnikov, Shvets, Schumacher, Schumann or Schubert. A fat family might go by Tolstoy (corpulent), a petite one by Klein (small), a swarthy one by Schwarz (black).

Many names also stem from regions where both Jews and non-Jews lived in Eastern and Central Europe. For Jews, surnames often designate people who originated from the places in question. For Christian nobles, such names denote places in which they owned land.

Take, for example, a curious episode that took place in 1820s Poland. A letter addressed to Warsaw from the governmental commission responsible for Jewish surnames in northern Poland presented a list of 62 Jews from that area who adopted “noble” Polish surnames. The authors of the letter do not explain why they considered these names to be noble, but the list itself makes their logic evident. 60 of the surnames (including Niborski, Romanowski, Stawiski and Tykulski) end in -ski, the most common suffix among the surnames of Polish nobility based on toponyms.

The letter claimed that Jews should abandon these surnames and replace them with new ones. Apparently, this suggestion had no real lasting consequences: Yitskhok Niborski, born in Buenos Aires in 1947, authored the most comprehensive Yiddish dictionary; his ancestors came precisely from the area in question.

I have discussed previously in these pages the large series of compound surnames, often typical for Ashkenazic Jews, that have two German roots, names like Gold-berg, Silber-stein, Eisen-feld and Wein-garten.

This formulation was invented and regularly used by Austrian Christian officials, especially in Galicia, the territory that today corresponds to western Ukraine and southern Poland. This pattern was particularly helpful for the local administrations because it allowed them to easily construct surnames for hundreds of thousands of Jews during a short period of time. In many cases, these artificially constructed surnames contain the names of places in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. Numerous German Christians also have these place names in their surnames.

In German and Prussian provinces, the sharing of surnames is sometimes explained by a totally different reason. During the first half of the 19th century, local Jews often adopted surnames that were based on common male given names, often in their German forms. Many of these biblical names were shared by Jews and Christians alike, such as Abraham, David, Gabriel, Jacob and Moses.

In other families, Jews chose Christian surnames that happened to sound similar to Jewish first names. Among the examples are: Arendt, which sounds close to Aaron, Mozart, which sounds like Moses, Bürger, which sounds like Baruch, Natorp, which sounds like Nathan, or Salinger, which sounds like Solomon.

While there are a few surnames that Ashkenazi Jews straight up borrowed from Christians, this was rather exceptional. In Eastern Europe, we find only a few examples of names that seem to fall into this category: Kliot, Manteufel, Tiesenhaus and Vietinghof. All of them were also borne by Polish noble families with German ancestry, some of whom lived in the same territories as the Jewish bearers.

It is unclear how these names became Jewish. Perhaps their first Jewish bearers were working for the noble families in question. Alternatively, the Jewish names might have been drawn from some local place names.

In Jewish history, the only group who regularly borrowed Christian surnames were the so-called “Portuguese“ Jewish communities from Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, Venice, Livorno and Bordeaux. Their history is, however, totally different from that of the Ashkenazi communities addressed in this article, and deserves to be covered in a separate piece entirely.

Alexander Beider is a linguist and the author of reference books about Jewish names and the history of Yiddish. He lives in Paris.


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