Surname Confusion

Every so often I do arbitrary searches on the Yad Vashem database. I’m never sure what I’ll find or if the output will be relevant. One day I came across a page of remembrance that a family from Israel had submitted for relatives “lost in the Shoah” (that’s the phrase used instead of “murdered by the Nazi’s”) and my heart skipped a beat. There appeared the surname with which I was born, listing given names that repeatedly appeared in my father’s family. Moreover, these people who died in the Holocaust had resided in the town in Galicia where my grandfather had been born. This could not be coincidental.

Since an Israeli had made the submission, I looked in the phone directory to see if I could track down this unknown branch of my family. My maiden name is not a common one.

I succeeded in reaching the family, soon met with the brothers who had submitted the page, and we tried to figure out how exactly we were related. There was no doubt that we were somehow connected. They gave me all their family details and we surmised that our great-grandfathers had to be brothers. How else could we have the same last name?


I subsequently got hold of some surviving archive records from the town. Not many survived, and these archive registration books had actually been found in someone’s attic in a closed chest just a few years before. What I discovered was a registration of the marriage of a known sister of this family’s grandfather. Her maiden name was that of our family surname, however, her father had an altogether different surname and it was her mother whose maiden name was the same as that of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Huh?

So it turned out that the carrying of the family surname was actually from the maiden name of this family’s great-grandmother, handed down to their grandfather, father, and used by them. I saw this practice of taking the mother’s surname yet again in another branch of the same family – using the maiden name of a mother rather than the father. Was this a Galicia thing?

Yes, but perhaps for two different reasons. The first and probably primary reason was that in Galicia, one of the reforms implemented by Emperor Joseph II stipulated that both a religious and civil authority marriage ceremony were mandatory for a marriage to be considered legitimate. Many Jews had a religious ceremony but did not comply with the civil edict. When children were born, they were thus considered illegitimate since the parents were not legally married according to the Empire. Hence the children were given their mother’s maiden name as their surname.

But I’ve seen another case in my family ancestry where a couple from Galicia had 10 children: the first 4 took the father’s surname. The following 6 alternated between taking the father’s surname, the mother’s maiden name, and the maiden name of their mother’s mother! So there were 3 different surnames carried by 10 siblings. Since they started with the father’s surname, it’s unlikely that the marriage was considered illegitimate.

It turns out that a steep fee was assessed in order to register the birth of a child with the surname of the father, which was generally the desired assignment. However, it was free to register the child with the name of the mother. Registration of births was mandatory and times were often financially hard at the turn of the 19th to 20th century.

So apparently cost trumped father’s surname in birth registration when finances were tight.