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Surname Evolution

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Dr. Allen E. Goldenthal is the author of the Kahana Chronicles series of books available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions


How we all obtained our surnames is a fascinating story and one which I’m more than happy to tell because there is so much misleading information. Surnames as an institution did not happen over night, in fact they didn’t even happen over years or decades. They were more like insidious infection that took centuries until they were actually popular and used by practically everyone. Their introduction also happened to have a geographic component, in that the far west and the far east of the known world were first to introduce them, while everything and everyone in between was more than happy not to adopt any legal practice, especially if it involved government registration. But as the populations of these middle countries grew, not only did governments see the need for surnames, but the common people saw it as a way to avoid the near insurmountable confusion when trying to conduct business or even just find their directions to someone’s home. Some people embraced surnames when they recognized the practical need, others agreed to accept them when the government demanded it, while still others avoided them as if they were the plague, resisting until the last possible moment. The reasons for their resistance will be discussed in the body of this article. Especially since it was the Jews that resisted most and for reasons that one might even call justified. To begin this dynamic change in human history, lets look at the most common forms of surname that people adopted, beginning with the patronym.

Patronymic Surnames

The first surnames were commonly the result of indicating that person was the ‘son of’ or daughter of’ their father and this carried on throughout most of early history with only the aristocracy adopting a title and using that as their surname. As such, you had people bearing the names King, Prince, Lord or if they were Dukes or Counts, then they most often bore the name of their principality such as Wales, York, etc. At that time, the name served a greater purpose of distinguishing someone highborn form the lowborn masses and for the general masses it was probably discouraged for them to adopt the practice because it might be seen as an attempt to rise higher in station than they merited. In my own family history, this was the origin of Kahana, which was used by my ancestors for centuries, indicating they were descendants of the ancient Israelite high priesthood, but then we see variations of it among other populations, such as Khan in the Indo-Asian regions, Kagan in the Central Steps of Russia, and even the chieftain’s designation of Kahana in Polynesia, especially in Hawaii. Once the Pacific Islands confronted the Western World, the title became used by westerners in such phrases as the ‘Big Kahuna’. Even in my family’s own sphere of influence, the title evolved as in the name Katz, which was derived from KAhana TZedek, meaning the Righteous High Priest. But the name also became commonly used later by people coming from Katzbollenger, once place names became popular as surnames.

But titles aside, most people, were simply referred to as the son or daughter of their father, which meant each generation, their offspring were changing their surname. Every culture used this system for millennia, with people recorded as Donald’s Son, Sohnn, Sen, Es, Ez, Wicz, Ov after their father’s name of Donald, or Mac, Mc, O’, or Fitz Donald placed before their father’s name depending in which country they lived. The fact that these patronymns were were constantly changing with each passing generation as the son became a father, and so on was a major problem because traceability within a family was lost. There was a partial remedy to this in the 1200s when the patronym became fixed in the United Kingdom, with it becoming a clan name in Scotland and a family progenitor name in England. By the late 1400s, a similar process had taken place in France, but for the rest of Europe, the was no formalized system and there seemed to be no intention to correct the issue either, at least not for another 400 years.

In China, surnames had been fixed by the Han Dynasty, a couple of hundred years BCE. But the selection of names was limited, since the population was only a fraction of what it is now. So Lee, Zhang, Wong, Zhao, Liu, Chen, and Yang became the seven common family names for most of the people. But as time passed, suddenly there were millions of people bearing one of these seven last names, and you can imagine the nightmare created in a society that prided itself in documentation. With thousands upon thousands bearing the exact same first and last names, it became impossible to determine who might be the entitled holder of a contract or property, etc. And with the same first names being used for both sexes, it could not even be determined if one should be talking to a man or a woman in any of those regards.

It became evident, whether it be England or France, the use of a family patronym had limitations and ultimately could result in confusion of identities by people bearing the exact same names. Similarly, China learned a lesson of limiting surnames and the nightmare that could create. There had to be a better way and governments explored other possibilities.

Personal Characteristic Surnames

It’s only human nature that we would assign surnames to people based on their personal characteristics. These names could have either been complimentary or derogatory. It didn’t matter because people just like to call other people names. So whether we called John followed by the word Small because we simply wanted to distinguish him from another John we knew as being bigger, or we simply called him that because we considered him a runt, the fact is that the names began to stick. Before you knew it, there were people referred to as John the Small, Sam the Strong, etc. With time, the article ‘the’ became lost and all that was left was John Small. The characteristics could be based on anything imaginable. A nose, one’s teeth, even the colour of one’s hair. For example, there are a variety of surnames given to people simply based on hair colour. Such surnames included, Brown, Blackhead, White, Weiss for white in German, Rousseau for a red haired person in France, etc. That same redhead person in Italy becomes Rossi, Roth in Germany and Piros in Hungarian. The possibilities were limitless. But even these names had limitations when someone’s son was over six feet tall and he had the surname Small. He didn’t like it, people laughed at it, and suddenly there needed to be a way to change it.
There is a second type of surname that was based on personal or athletic prowess such as Ready, or Fast. Whatever it was that made that person unique could be adopted. Someone who had a good voice could be called Singer or someone considered haughty may have been called Proud. The use of Characteristic names was slow to come into use and often it may have been what a person let himself be called but it certainly wasn’t the name he would permit to be written into a legal and binding document if he considered it derogatory. So in most cases, these remained as unofficial surnames and were not commonly used to any large degree until it came time to officially register and there was no longer a choice.

Place Name Surnames

Over time, people became named after places where their families were known to live but these place names actually come in several different categories, not just being the name from a city or a town. Of course, the first usage was to name someone after a city or town but it is of interest that people were rarely named after the town in which they were residing, but only named after the town they had left or were born in. Hence the use of the terms of being ‘From’ or ‘Of’ as the preposition. Perhaps it was a way of tracing someone’s travels for government registration. So someone named Ben who used to live in York came to be known as Ben Of York or more simply Ben York, or Ben Von Helmstrom if he used to live in a Germanic town. In a similar way Van was used in Dutch regions or De placed before a town’s name in France.
Later on, a new form of place surname occurred where people were named after a geographic feature that they lived near by. For example, those living near a hill or a mountain might have been called Hill (English), Muinoa (Basque), Bakker (Danish), etc. People who lived near a river or stream might have been called Brooks (English), Rio (Spanish) or Strom (Swedish). Suddenly people were being named after a variety of natural surroundings, but this was also limited as the majority of people lived in the cities and had little of nature surrounding them to refer to, plus you could only have so many DeVilles in France.

Occupational Surnames

As civilizations advanced and the number of jobs or occupations increased rapidly as the world became industrialized, the work lent itself to be the next general category of surnames. In this respect, people were labeled by their occupation. We have many obvious examples of this in the English language, such as: Baker, Potter, Shepherd, Farmer, and Butcher. Similar names in their native language occurred throughout Europe. These common occupational surnames can be found translated into the language of practically every other country. For example, Smith, derived from the occupation of being either the metal worker or horse shoer is translated into German as Schmidt, Ferraro in Italian, Forgero in French, etc.

Even though there were a variety of ways in which one could adopt a surname, the reality is that most people didn’t see a need for them. They didn’t want to be easily identified and they certainly didn’t want the government to be able to trace there whereabouts and know of their activities. In other words, they considered the adoption of surnames as a loss of freedom and it was easier to escape blame by being John Nobody than having a name that would lead the police to your front door.

So as mentioned above, surnames were originally given to a single person as a patronym, but these surnames would change from generation to generation, making it difficult to keep track of any family relationship. So it was only natural that as time passed, these people would stop changing their surnames with each passing generation and fix it on one particular ancestor that they idolized and hoped to honor by living a comparable life. These permanent surnames seem to appear first after the first crusades, starting in in England and Scotland and spreading outwards. Most British surnames appear to have become fixed or permanent between 1250 and 1450.

The rest of Europe was much slower to follow. It is recognized that most of Scotland had fixed surnames at a time period similar to England using the clan patronym, but it was not until the 18th century that they began to name themselves after other things besides their ancestral fathers.

The prime motivator for legally registered surnames was Napoleon Bonaparte. In his attempt to unite Europe into a single Empire, Napoleon recognized that the cost of operating such an empire would be enormous and therefore a census or head tax was required. But such a collection of taxes could only occur if there was a proper means by which to register each payment by the name of the person making the offering.

So Napoleon’s attempt began with the Decree of Napoleon in 1811 in the Netherlands. It was the law that the head of each family would register at their local municipality under a chosen surname. The families had four categories from which to choose. These were, geographic, nicknames, occupations and patronymic or matronymic names. Whereas the people of the Netherlands did not seem to resist the law, those in other countries conquered by Napoleon didn’t want to be registered at all and in the Scandinavian countries their resistance lasted well beyond other nations, until 1860 when the people finally adopted fixed surnames.

The Jewish Resistance

As for some of the other European countries, they had other reasons why they wanted to adopt surnames and in their reasoning, they actually singled out one population in particular, that being the Jews as their reason for doing so. It would not be an overstatement to say that there was a resistance among Jews to adopt an official surname. Whatever their reasons, the Jews were a perpetual thorn in the side of government when it came to registration and census. Perhaps it was God’s warning to David to never try and enumerate that population, seen as a biblical forebadence leading to doom if a king did such a thing, and this fear was carried on into modern times. Whatever the reason, Ashkenazi Jews were among the last population in Europe to take family names and in most cases it had to be forced. It is true that in the Rhineland, some German-speaking Jews did take last names as early as the 17th century but they represented a very small minority and since the largest Jewish populations resided in Eastern Europe, it was this this latter and larger population that refused to take on surnames until they were finally compelled to do so. The process to force Jews to bear surnames took sixty years to complete, beginning in the Austro-Hungarian Empire as early as 1782 and ending in Czarist Russia by 1844. Even so, it still took some extra heavy handed persuasion to complete the task by 1850.

From the government perspective, the Empire was attempting to build a modern nation-state, and therefore the authorities insisted that Jews must take last names so that they could be taxed, drafted, and educated, that last benefit being extremely limited, which may have fueled some of the resistance to acquiesce. To be fair, from the standpoint of the Jews, for hundreds of years they had been paying into the community collection box, and then their own leaders would transfer to the government that portion which was considered a fair tax on the Jewish population. On religious grounds, most Jews were excused from serving in the military, so faced with forced conscription into the army, it was no wonder that the Jews did not wish to cooperate with the surname requirements. Education was taken care of by the community as well, the Jews providing their own schooling and therefore they had no desire or requirement to attend the public school system. In this regard, there was no problem using only patronymns because their dealings outside the community were very limited. Closed communities didn’t need surnames.

And there were other reasons to avoid cooperating with the authorities. After years of pogroms and persecutions, any dealings with the governmental personnel usually resulted in upheaval and tragedy with the deaths of hundreds as a result. Therefore, the less the authorities knew about them, the better. But now they were being forced to cooperate and in January 1782 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II enacted his Edict of Tolerance, which wasn’t tolerant at all as far as the Jews were concerned. It’s main goal was to integrate Austrian Jewish subjects into the economic life of Austria, granting them access to public education and job training as apprentices and journeymen. But it came with a heavy price. The “Jewish language and writing” was to be abolished and all trade books, official documents and official certificates used by the Jewish communities were to be written in German from then onwards. From the Jewish perspective this was nothing other than forced assimilation and as long as they could resist adopting a surname, they considered themselves as God’s freedom fighters. We know that this policy was not too successful, as many of the Jewish communities found ways to delay the registration, the community members continuing their lives as Abraham Ben Isaac, and so on according to documents of the time. Having done so for almost three thousand years, there was little reason to change, as far as they were concerned.

But the Austrian government was not prepared to admit defeat, following with another edict in July 1787, this time being issued in all the German speaking lands wherever a Jews lived. The language of the edict was much harsher, requiring that each Jew was to adopt a firm, German surname or else they would be legally charged, fined and if they resisted, imprisoned. Absolutely no names derived from the Hebrew would be permitted, and any other registered name that was already in use and not German would have to be legally changed. That meant that any surnames that they may have already had that were “unknown in the German language” were no longer permitted. Any names used by German and Austrian aristocrats could not be used. The selection of surnames being offered was quite limited with only 156 names acceptable to the authorities on the list. All other names, even if German were forbidden, and their use was punishable by fines. But this time the policy had an enticement, but only for those Jews that lived in Austria and not in the surrounding territories or provinces. The offer sounded quite appealing, stating that those who accepted the offer of name registration would also be granted immediate citizenship. But even being granted citizenship. according to the bill, they were still not to be granted equal rights and some professions still remained closed to them. It may have been called citizenship, but the Jews quickly saw it as a lie and continued to refuse to register.
The Duchy of Baden soon followed Austria’s example, and one German State after the other the closed ranks. King Frederick William of Prussia declared in his Edict of 11 March 1812 “the Jews to be his national subjects and citizens”. However not all of Prussia’s territories were included, and so there were still a number of Prussian Jews in 1848 without any citizenship rights despite the promise. For those Jews who had received citizenship rights, employment at State offices remained inaccessible, and so was lecturing at universities.

Just like the Austrian Jews, most German Jews who lived in the major cities may have already had either a fixed surname, or a double name such as Abraham Isaacs, Baruch Samuel or Asher Levi. But those living in the countryside, most likely had only their given name when it came to signing a document. The country registers show such examples as Jacob the Jew, or Mordecai the Jew, etc. So even with the edict of 1812 it was clear that the government was fighting an uphill battle and would be doing so for a generation.

Those lands outside the direct influence of the Austrian Empire were not affected by any of these laws and Jewish life proceeded normally, with Jews using the old system of Jacob ben Isaac, or Sarah bat Joseph as their official name. Regions such as Galicia, parts of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldova were beyond the governance of Vienna, even though the Habsburgs laid official claim to them, but both the distance and the influences of the neighbouring Ottoman and Russian Empires meant that that Austrians had a smaller presence in these regions.

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Tracing of a Jewish family’s name change from their original to the new Germanic is still possible in some of the smaller town records. I will use the example of a Nathan Friedlander from Naugard Prussia. Even though Friedlander was German, it was not among the list of permissible names and the record shows that he became Nathan Silberstein. Therefore, to find his ancestors, one looks in old records for people surnamed Friedlander. In the period between 1800 and 1820, many of the records still show these changeovers of names and families can still discover their original surnames. Sadly, any older records written in Hebrew seem to have almost completely disappeared, suggesting the law requiring them to keep documents only in the German language meant that these old records were purposely destroyed.
But as has always been the historical case, Jews were resistant to enforced change, especially when it meant sacrificing a part of their heritage. Even in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, a large portion of the Jews had still not registered for an official Germanic surname and this was finally resolved in 1848 when Franz Josef became Emperor. Following the failed Hungarian revolt in that year, the Hungarian Jewish Census known by its Latin name, Conscriptio Judaerum. 1848 was conducted. It was a survey of only Jews in Hungary, parts of Slovakia, Croatia, and Romania. Because the Emperor believed the revolution in the spring of that year was a Jewish and liberal organized attempt to overthrow the government and he deemed it necessary to know the identify of every potential revolutionary in the Empire. That meant that any Jew still lacking a surname from prior attempts to get the Jews registered was most likely part of the revolution based solely on his family’s history of being uncooperative. Since treason was punishable by death, it was not surprising to see the last resistance among Jews crumble and after that time, the identity of every Jew became known. Still, it was a longer process than expected, taking almost a year to complete, as the government never issued any official forms to record the data. The census takers wrote on whatever they had handy but when it was over, it finally did put an end to the use of patronymns by the Jews within the borders of the Empire.

As for those other lands where the Jews were living, practically none of the Jews in the Polish Commonwealth, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Belarus, had surnames until the mid 1800s either. Similar to those Jews in the Austrian Empire, they were forced to change this practice. Jews in Poland were named after their fathers patronymically, such as Jakob son of Yosef being called Jakob Yosefowicz. Abraham son of Mordecai would be Avrom Mortkowicz. Fortunately, the Polish government was not so adverse to the making of patronymns fixed and these names became permanent for any descendants. But this changed in the 1800s with the annexation of western Poland by Germany. Any Jews still not registered with a surname were instructed to take on German names, so Western Poland became an interesting mix of German names such as Goldberg, Silberstein and Feldman, while you still had Polish names and Hebrew names simultaneously. There were even those that Polishized the German such as changing the German Stein to Kamiński or the German Berg to Gorski, each having the same meaning when translated into English. The officials relented in these non Germanic countries, letting the Jews select surnames that had more appeal to them. This included names of cities such as Warsawski from the city of Warsaw.

The Old Jewish Surnames

As mentioned earlier, those areas beyond Germanic rule permitted Jews to have greater freedom of selection but even though the Germans and Austrians insisted on selection from a limited list of names, they did recognize certain families with greater prestige to retain their original surnames, even if they were in defiance of this decree. Hence, families like the Mendelsohnnes or the Rothchilds were permitted to retain their original surnames. Other prominent families, that held place names as their surnames, such as Rappoport, Heller or Loew were also left unchanged. But these instances were rare for those living within the reach of German or Austrian authorities. As for those others, it unfortunately created a dilemma for most Jewish genealogists attempting to trace their families beyond 1800 because the switch from the patronym to the official surname may indicate that a person in 1840 was originally called Joseph ben Jacob but was now referred to as Joseph Goldberg but there is no way to know exactly which Jacob living in that city, village or town was his father. The error often made is when looking at a death record for let’s say for demonstration purposes this same Joseph Goldberg in 1870, dying at 70 years of age, to assume that there must be a father named Goldberg existing in 1800 if we only look harder. There is none and unless you can find some record of residence, to show that Jacob Goldberg was living with another man back in 1840, the time of some of the first census records, named Jacob. Then perhaps we can then trace a death certificate of a Jacob Goldberg in 1845 (because the father would now bear the same surname adopted by his son), and on that certificate it might list the name of his father who was called Abraham. That is the only way most Jewish genealogists can manage to extend that one extra generation beyond the forced adoption of surnames.

In my family’s situation, as mentioned previously, we were lucky. Not only did the family have a title for a surname, but we had the good fortune of living beyond the German and Austrian reach in Galicia, Moldova and Eastern Romania, so it was not necessary to abandon the non-Germanic surname as was required by law. When my ancestor finally did adopt the name Goldenthal in the 1830s, it was by choice, and because of Jakob Kahana’s prominence, all the other close relatives in the family back in Brody, and those that migrated to Romania also adopted the surname. But those that were not as close, such as his relatives descended from his great uncles, continued until this day with Kahana as their surname. But there was more good fortune when it came to the name Goldenthal, it was the name of an aristocratic German family known as the Von Goldenthals. How we were able to secure a German aristocratic name in the family is a long story in itself and will be dealt with at a later time. But as a result, anyone bearing our surname is related, either directly, or as in the case of the majority of the Israeli Goldenthals, through the marriage of a Russian deserter from the Napoleonic War that hid out in a Goldenthal household and then married one of the daughters, taking her surname as his own, when finally forced to have a name in the 1840s.

The Goldenthaler

While on the subject of surnames, I want to take this opportunity to show an example of how easy it is for partial information to confound and confuse our efforts to research family genealogy. There are many stories about how families arrived at their surnames. But the fact is, that whatever the government registrar recorded at the time they asked was what your name became. Some countries had premium names they charged prices for according to some stories. I’ve yet to find a record confirming that someone paid more for Gold in their name than the person that used Silver. Maybe it’s true but I’m still searching for the proof.

And though this next tale is told as a joke, it has a strong element of truth in it. During a voyage to America, a man kept reminding his somewhat dimwitted younger brother that his name when asked would be Simon Cohen. The boy kept repeating Simon Cohen, Simon Cohen over and over again. When they got off the boat in Ellis Island, the registrar asked the boy what his name was for the record. As hard as he tried, the boy could not remember, finally slapping his forehead and shouting “Shoin forgessen,” meaning I already forgot from the Yiddish. The Registrar turned to him and smiled. “Welcome to America, Shaun Fergusson,” as he entered the name into the book. Ellis Island apparently was a place where people could change their name if they so desired, and many foreigners took the opportunity to shed their strange sounding names and make them American.

There is this story in my family which circulated as the result of the old Chinese Whispers adage that tells of a rich banker back in the Romanian hometown, who decided since he had no children of his own, would use his wealth to send as many children in the community as possible to higher education schools as long as they registered using his surname, which just happened to be Goldenthal. That should have been the first alarm that there might be something wrong with the story because how many bankers do you know that are willing to part with money?

For years, members of the family used this story as an explanation of how our surname arose because it was not typical of the Jewish names used in Romania and without the knowledge of our Austrian connection, it was hard to justify why we selected a completely Germanic name. My grandmother was Herscovici, a good Romanian name and these were far more typical of the general population. But this story got told, and it was a very nice story about a very generous man, that you almost want to be true because it says something positive about human nature.

But the holes in the story are big enough to drive a truck through and it is a good lesson as to why other families should thoroughly research their history, approaching any family stories logically, with a detective’s mind before they go around telling a tale that has no merit. And in our particular family story there was not merit for the following reasons:

First, as I stated earlier, all Goldenthals are related, (It’s a Small World) so unless he just happened to limit his generosity to the children of one particular family, there is no way that could be the case. What other families should learn from this, is if they have a surname that is very uncommon, then there probably is a very significant story behind how it was adopted, very unique and it should be explored thoroughly.

Second, the registration process was conducted by the oldest member of each family, which meant it was not the child’s consent required but the child’s parent. Some stranger to the family could not arrange to have children take the name unless he had some legal guardianship. Unless these children were all orphans, there’s no way he could have made the decision for them and he probably wouldn’t have to many fathers abdicating their involvement in name selection. The lesson from this is recognizing the adoption of a surname was not a haphazard, whatever, episode. Families got together, looked at the benefits and disadvantages of each choice, and made a decision that was universally adopted by the extended families so that brothers, uncles, nephews, having families of their own all had the same surname once the process was completed.

Third, the registration process had limitations as I mentioned on who could use a particular surname. As these children were outside the Germanic boundaries, it would be possible to use a Germanic aristocratic name, but since I know the story of how my third great grandfather received the name, I know this is not the case. You’ll just have to wait until I write that book to know the reason why. I don’t want to give away the details of a good story. Here is a good lesson regarding patience and not snapping to judgment. In my travels through Austria and practically living in libraries, our ancestors lives become jigsaw puzzles that we can put together one piece at a time. Sometimes we will be shocked by the results, but skeletons in the closet make genealogy exciting.

Fourth, there is no history of a surge of students in higher education attending these schools all named Goldenthal. At a later time there were a few doctors in the family, a dentist or two, but the numbers were small and the educational gap from 1830 to 1870 for most of the Goldenthals would suggest they did not attend anything other than public education and a vocational school which at that time was free of charge. There is a key lesson in this point. As more and more records of past centuries appear on the internet, not only can we find names of individuals but also their occupations. I have on some of my family records I’ve gathered everything from peasant to Professor as an occupation. The details of the work they did provide us with a good indication of the level of education they received.

Fifth, the system was run by government officials. At that time it would have meant very anally retentive bean counters. They were the determining factor on how many times a name could be used and they certainly wouldn’t indulge a narcissistic banker who wanted to preserve his name into perpetuity by having hundreds of children bearing his name. And the lesson from this point is that this was a government program, and therefore controlled by bureaucrats. No single individual could go about making his own rules as to how names would be distributed.

Sixth, the family was split over three cities in Romania being Iassi, Botsony and Piatra Neamt. Unless this banker was offering branch services in three different cities with staff doing nothing but looking for needy children in all three, it doesn’t make sense that the name arises in all three cities simultaneously. Geography played a big role in the past when we consider that twenty miles was probably a full days travel. Most people never ventured more than fifty miles from their residence. So if it doesn’t seem reasonable that a person would take days or weeks out his daily schedule in order to perform some task, in all likelihood, he didn’t. In this case, no banker would be setting up funding programs in three different cities, hundreds of miles apart, having no hands on to the process, no oversight as to who is receiving what as part of his donation. Had Goldenthals only appeared suddenly in one city at that time, perhaps there could have been something to the story but that was not the case. So understanding the geography is essential for tracing one’s family roots.

Seventh, as mentioned in the article, higher education was quite restricted when it came to Jews taking positions in universities. So it was very doubtful that this banker had any way to assure any child that the could secure for them a higher education. The banker would have to have been very selective which goes against the entire nature of the story of his generosity. Sad as it was, even when Jews were granted citizenship, it was not true citizenship with full rights and privileges. Governments knew how important education was to Jewish families. By limiting access, they knew they could keep the Jews under control because the masses usually only become unruly when they were being led by their educated elite. Preventing them from developing such a class was a common tool of antisemitism. And it wasn’t even an issue of the 19th Century. In 20th Century Toronto, the government there saw the surging number of doctors among the Jewish community as a serious problem. By not making hospital positions available to them, most would be nothing more than General Practitioners and likely serving only their own community. But what they didn’t foresee was Jewish doctors uniting and setting up their own hospital, appropriately called Doctor’s Hospital, which serviced the general population.

Eighth, there is no uncovered record of any Goldenthal being a wealthy banker in any of the death records observed that had absolutely no ties to the family. All records to date show direct links between everyone bearing the name. And this is also a good lesson for budding genealogists. There wasn’t any social media back then, but if a person was well known, had a prestigious position or was a pillar of society, they were recognized by having their bibliography published in some manner. There was always going to be a record of that individual somewhere.

And lastly, I have this other bit of information that is only known to Freemasons and which parallels this story of the generous banker which I tell now and call the GOLDENTHALER as in the title of this section. My third great grandfather was a Mason, which is not s surprise because most intellectuals, especially university professors were Masons. As one of the founders of the Science Club at the University of Vienna, you can be certain that Jakob would be a Freemason. I am a Mason as well, and although I have never asked other members of my family if any of them are Masons, I’m certain there are probably some. Now if one looks in the Masonic Encyclopedia, there is an entry called the GOLDENTHALER. The first impression is that they are talking about a gold coin, but the thaler used in Austria and some German states was a silver coin. The gold coin was actually a ducat. The definition explains that the Goldenthaler was a grant provided originally by the Freemason in Austria to children to help with their education. Doesn’t this sound like the Banker story? There were no denominational restrictions. It was available for all children, of all religions and it was part of the Masonic Benevolence Tradition. Although the encyclopedia does not specifically state that the practice was originated with Jakob Goldenthal, the fact that it would appear to be a play on his name, the practice originated in Austria during his time and that he was a high order Mason, then the probability of his being responsible was quite high. But I don’t want this closing paragraph to be about the benevolence of Freemasons. I want to use it to point out a simple fact, had I not been a Freemason and looked in the encyclopedia, I never would have known this information. That is why it is imperative in your research that you leave no stone unturned. You will probably find evidence in the strangest of places.

In Conclusion

There's always a story behind our surnames. What we need to appreciate is that one of our ancestors long ago thought long and hard about how he wanted to identify himself. Perhaps in some cases, he didn't think long enough, but we have to appreciate the process in from the beginning was one of choice. If one wanted to be known as Small, then he may have had good reason to believe that all his descendants would remain small in stature. We may never know why someone has the last surname of Bird. Perhaps it was because he like birds, or he walked like a bird, or dreamed of flying. The fact is that those with that surname had an ancestor that actually did know why he selected it and somewhere over time the story became lost but it doesn't mean that with a lot of hard work it can't be rediscovered. We may wonder if our last name is Priestly and the family was always known to be devout Catholics. There actually may be a terrific story there and church records may be the first place to start. Whatever the case, the surnames we bear are ours for a reason. When you give up your surname, for whatever reason, you give up a piece of your personal history. You lose something that was yours because at one time it was special. In an age where we are so desperate to assimilate and hide our pasts, perhaps we should take the time to think strongly about why we would change our last name and make certain that we do it for all the right reasons.

Dr. Allen Goldenthal

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana


Ya'aqov ben Yisrael on December 10, 2020:

Awesome---I am so glad that you are posting again! Thank you for all the wisdom that you bestow upon us

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