Ask any Ashkenazi American Jew about his family’s arrival in the United States, and you’re likely to hear a certain story. With minor variations, it goes something like this: “My great-grandfather was called Rogarshevsky, but when he arrived at Ellis Island, the immigration officer couldn’t understand his accent. So he just wrote down ‘Rogers,’ and that became my family’s name.”The rest of the (long) story is at Azure, which "presents the best in Jewish thought from Israel and around the world."
Most American Jews accept such stories as fact. The truth, however, is that they’re fiction. Ellis Island, New York City’s historic immigrant-absorption center, processed up to 11,000 immigrants daily between 1892 and 1924. Yet despite this incessant flow of newcomers, the highest standards of professionalism were demanded of those who worked there. All inspectors—many of whom were themselves immigrants, or children of immigrants — were required to know at least two languages; many knew far more, and all at the native-speaker level. Add to that the hundreds of auxiliary interpreters, and together you’ve covered nearly every possible language one might hear at Ellis Island. Yiddish, Russian, and Polish, in this context, were a piece of cake.
Nor were inspections the brief interactions we associate with passport control in today’s airports. Generally they lasted twenty minutes or more, as inspectors sought to identify those at high risk of becoming wards of the state. But perhaps most significantly, Ellis Island officers never wrote down immigrants’ names. Instead, they worked from ships’ manifests, which were themselves compiled by local officials at the point of embarkation. Even overseas, passenger lists were likewise not generated simply by asking immigrants for their names. Rather, they were drawn from passports, exit visas, and other identification papers. The reason for this was simple: Errors cost the shipping company money. A mistake on a manifest, such as a name that was not corroborated by other documentation (whether legal or fraudulent), would result in the forced deportation of the person in question back to his point of departure—at the shipping company’s expense. Of course, many Jewish immigrants’ names were changed upon coming to America. Without exception, however, they changed their names themselves.
25 October 2010
The myth of Ellis Island name changes