Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Fluidity of Names

I love solving puzzles. I often have a “spidey sense” about the answer before I have the logical reasons to lend it credence, although in this case I sense what is right rather than what is amiss. There is something operating beneath the surface that I can’t fully explain, but I study my path to try to grasp its secrets.

I am drawn to genealogy in much the same way that I am drawn to reading. It is a way to imagine the lives of other people in other times, plus it has that added benefit of allowing me to solve puzzles. There is an impatient part of me that wants to rush the process, but I have learned it cannot be rushed or pre-judged. I need to remain open to possibilities as they unfold. 


Recently, I was hired to find what I could for a client who knew very little of one side of his family. He started as do many of my clients, with the names of his grandparents, Harry Hoffman and Esther Ackerman. They were from Romania – Bucharest he thought. He wasn’t aware of any family beyond his grandfather who came over and when I went to the records on JewishGen from Romania nothing came up in that region. I could feel those butterflies that always begin a search. What if I come up empty-handed? I can only work with what is there and sometimes it just isn’t there. As I couldn’t draw on overseas records, I focused my search on the US which can often shed some light on their ancestral town. 


I started to circle the problem, pacing mentally, looking for threads to tug on. I started by building a base of public information, searching both mainstream press and the local Jewish press, I combed city directories and located census records, beginning to build an address list, tracing them as they moved to different locations. I found the people who shared their names and time period but were not them.  I needed to be careful not to confuse their records. I located death records, finding the names of Esther’s parents within them.

Having exhausted my options, I went back to my original notes, looking for a clue. My client recalled a visit to his family from a woman named Bess Propper from New York, perhaps she was related in some way. When I shifted to New York, the ground began to shift as well, yielding its secrets. I found Bess and discovered  that her maiden name was Ackerman, like Esther’s. Then I traced her father Harry and found his naturalization paper under the name Henry, tied to the names of his wife and children as listed in the census.  It revealed his ancestral town was Galatz, originally in Moldova, now in Romania. 


I often find success searching via, a better front-end search engine.  I went to the section on deaths and marriages where there are multiple ways to search for this information in NY. I chose Family Search because they often have parents’ names. In this case I found the parents of Harry Ackerman. They matched those on Esther’s death record. Siblings! 


This is the first delicate thread of fact on which I begin to build and I soon weave a tight connection between a series of facts. I do a search in the NY marriage records for the two grandparents’ surnames and find one such record in 1903, the year of marriage indicated in the census. It is between a Harry Hoffman and an Ernestine Ackerman. Harry gives his father's name as Morris, which just happens to be my client's middle name, reflective of Jewish naming patterns. Could Esther have gone by Ernestine? Using that name, I search the immigration records and find her coming in from Galatz, Romania in 1903 which  ties to the year given in her census records. She is going to “her brother, H Ackerman.” Ernestine and Esther are indeed the same person. 


I still have to connect NY to Minnesota where Harry and Esther end up. I go online to the Ackman and Ziff Family Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History. They hold  the index for the Industrial Removal Office, a program in the early part of the 1900s that assisted Jews in leaving NY for the interior of the US. There I input Hoffman and clicked on the Industrial Removal Office, then searched for records from Minnesota. There it was, H. Hoffman and his wife Esther going to St. Paul. I took the index information from this site and went to where I searched the card catalog for the Industrial Removal Office records. Yes, the index and the documents are in two different locations. You just need to marry them up. Now I line up the dates and realize that in the space of one month, Ernestine arrives, marries and is on a train with her new husband to Minnesota. 


I then turned my attention to Harry. Perhaps there is a name variance for him as well. I review my notes and find that he is listed as Herman in several census and directory records. When I searched on Herman Hoffman, I discovered an immigration manifest for Oct 1899 coming from Galatz, the same town as his brother-in-law Harry Ackerman and his fiancé Ernestine. I then searched for census records and found Herman Hoffman living with his sister’s family a few months later in the 1900 census, a family member of whom we knew nothing. His sister's marriage record also gives her father as Morris, corresponding to that of her brother.The year of arrival in the census corresponds to the immigration manifest so I am fairly sure the Herman in the manifest and the census are the same person, but how do I confirm that this is also the Harry in Minnesota?  A few more records allow me to prove it out. In the NY naturalization records, I find a declaration from April 17, 1900. This was before naturalization records gave us much information, but in concert with other records it told me what I needed. The address given matched to that given in the 1900 census record. Then I found the next step in the naturalization process, the petition which was filed in Minnesota. I know it is the same Herman as it references his prior filing in New York by the corresponding date and court.

So here’s our story:


Herman arrives in NY Oct 1899

In 1900 he is living with his sister in NY at the address he notes in his first naturalization filing.

The father’s name for both Herman and his sister is the same in their marriage records

Similarly Esther and Harry Ackerman also share the same parents in their records.

Ernestine arrives 6/10/1903 and goes to her brother in NY

Harry and Ernestine marry 6/21/1903

They arrive in Minnesota 7/8/1903

Herman finishes his naturalization process in 1906


One final puzzle still stood. The transcription of the marriage record gave the father of Ernestine as Jak. According to her death record, it should be Isak. Not a big difference is there? I ordered a copy of the original marriage record to see for myself. The writing is hard to read, but it could certainly be read as Icek. And an interesting detail. The witnesses were H. Ackerman, the brother of Esther/Ernestine. And representing Harry was someone with the married surname of his sister. Each had their nearest relatives present.


So, what did I find as I study my path? Names are fluid. They tried them on and discarded them. Harry Ackerman also went by Henry, Harry Hoffman  by Herman and Esther by Ernestine(a). Harry seemed to use Herman for more official documents, but not always. Esther came over as Ernestine, later shedding it for Esther. Herman and Ernestine are common names in the Romanian records. Had I insisted they had to be Harry and Esther, I would never have found the records. 

Ages also were quite fluid. In this case the age range between Harry and Esther fluctuates from 8 years at marriage, 10 years on their immigration manifest, an average of 13 years across 5 census years and 16 years at death. The takeaway– if other elements match, don't be overly concerned about ages. They were of far less importance to them than they are to us.

Similarly, people aren’t static. They came into St. Paul via train but lived in Minneapolis. It isn’t that hard to cross the river. And a record by itself may not tell you much, but when you marry it up to related records, you begin to weave them together into a timeline which reveals a piece of the story. It is often by tilting the lens ever so slightly that we begin to solve the puzzle.

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