Monday, November 9, 2020

Reinventing that Name


Did your immigrant ancestor ever do this?

I have a relative who was born outside the country in which we all now live. This relative happened to be born into a family for which English was not their native language. The name this family bestowed upon him at his birth happens to be one which presents pronunciation difficulties for those who originate in other countries for which those phonetic sounds are not included in their vocabulary.

Fast forward to the present. In this relative's adopted homeland, introducing himself to new business associates can sometimes present problems. For instance, when this relative invites prospective clients to go golfing with him at his club, should those guests have as their native tongue, say, Japanese, it is well nigh impossible for them to wrap their tongue around my relative's name. Big problem when it's important to make comfortable first impressions.

Solution? My relative just tells them his name is "Jack."

Now, let's move that same scenario to a different time and a different city. Two sisters, with the unwieldy surname—at least to English speakers—of Czechowska marry two Polish men by the name of Michalski and all decide to move from the small town of Czarnylas in the region of Pomerania to a big city in the midwestern United States. In their new home in Milwaukee, they are sometimes fortunate to encounter American officials with whom they share their native Polish tongue—but sometimes they don't. For their many children born in Wisconsin, the variety of spellings for the same surnames—not to mention, for the Polish given names their parents naturally preferred—is a record-keeping wonder of inventiveness.

Some of those creative spelling approximations stuck, but sometimes, the challenge became wearying, and the end result was that quite a few of those Czechowska and Michalski descendants decided that the path of least resistance was to resort to a version of claiming "Jack" as their name. Sometimes, that attempt simply meant chopping off the last few syllables, or the last string of consonants from a surname. Other times, the surname didn't look much at all like the Polish version originally appeared. It was far easier to "fit in" than to wear someone's patience thin with un-American spelling conventions.

Working my way forward in time, researching these family lines, makes tackling that reinvention convention much easier, because I can clearly follow dates of birth, home addresses, and other telltale signs that confirm Name X is indeed the same as Person Y. But when I trace a DNA match backward in time, it isn't always as clear-cut a research path. Seeing someone with a clearly Anglo-sounding surname doesn't necessarily reveal the fingerprints of what once was a Polish surname in that match's heritage.

For those whom I can trace back through the several generations between our current times and the 1880s arrivals of these founding immigrant families, there is one particular detail to keep in mind. Those two Czechowska sisters led to one valuable clue in tying their descendants to my own DNA results: their mother had almost the same maiden name as my own mystery grandfather's mother, the woman I had found in New York City listed as Anna Krauss. While I can't be sure from the few items of documentation I could locate, her maiden name had been reported on just one record—her son's death certificate—as Zegar. 

The two Czechowska sisters happened to claim a mother surnamed Zegarska. While that is not an exact match to my Anna's possible maiden name of Zegar, could it have been yet another instance of someone just succumbing to that immigrant desire to fit in by shortening that name to a less-foreign length?

Perhaps all it takes now, given the confirmation of those DNA matches, is to just make the move and plug them in to my family tree. I'm building out the Michalski and Zegarska tree, and I don't see any other possible way those descendants of the two Milwaukee immigrants connect to my New York kin. And yet...I hesitate while I try to find just one more token that maybe, maybe this is as right as it seems to be. When we're trained to base our genealogical conclusions upon documentation, it seems so tenuous to decide something when we aren't holding the security blanket of a piece of paper. 



  1. Funny that. When in the U.S., my husband always gives his name as John, when ordering coffees in Starbucks, for example. It is soo much easier than telling them his name is Declan. LOL!

    1. Interesting, Dara. So your husband can totally relate to that situation--although, if he were in, say, Boston or New York, I hardly think anyone would bat an eye at his saying "Declan." One of my husband's cousins named her son that very name.


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