History of German Jewish Surnames
Is my Surname Jewish?
Jewish Surname Changes in Germany and Austria
German and Austrian Jews were subject to many restrictions in Germany until the early 1800s. In January 1782 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. enacted a new law, called the Edict of Tolerance. It’s main goal was integrate his Jewish subjects fully into the economic life of the nation, and he therefore granted them access to public education, including higher education, and to job training as apprentices and journeymen. At the same time he declared the “Jewish language and writing” as abolished: all trade books, official documents and official certificates were to be written in German from then on. On July 1787 a new ruling was published: each Jew in German lands was required to either adopt (or if they already had one, to maintain) a firm, German surname. Names derived from the Hebrew were no longer permitted, and had to be legally changed. Families with already established surnames were permitted to keep them, provided they were not Hebrew names. Given names were to be “Germanized” as well, and names that were “unknown in the German language” were no longer permitted. The selection was quite limited: the Hebrew translator in Bohemia, for example, submitted a list of about 2000 names, but only 156 of those were considered acceptable by the authorities. All other names were forbidden, and their use was punishable by fines.
Although citizenship was now finally granted to Jews in Austria, they still did not receive equal rights since not all professions were opened to them.
The Duchy of Baden soon followed Austria’s example, and one German State after the other joined 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. For those Jews who had received citizenship rights, employment at State offices remained inaccessible, and so was lecturing at universities.
Before the 1800s most German Jews who lived in cities had already either a fixed surname, or a double name (examples for such double names: Amsel Abraham, Löw Baruch, Ascher Simon). On the country side, Jews were often recorded in German documents solely by their given name (examples: Abraham, David, Jakob, Seligmann). In older documents one may find references to “Jacob Jude”, “Isaac Jude”, “Abraham Jude”, Jude simply meaning “Jacob Jew”, “Isaac Jew”, “Abraham Jew”.
During the Emancipation, some government officials misunderstood the legislation, and demanded that even previously appropriate surnames should be changed. A number of such examples can be found in the Duchy of Baden: In the District Administration of Lörrach (Rötteln), even the “acceptable” surnames Bloch and Braunschweig were changed. There had been 14 families with the Bloch surname, and 7 by the surname of Braunschweig. None of them kept their old surname. The Braunschweigs changed their names to: Beck, Braun, Dornacher, Graf, and Keller. The Blochs adopted the following family names: Dietersheimer, Dornacher, Dreher, Geißmann/Geißmar, Kaufmann, Kirchheimer, Mock, and Weil.
A number of the official name change lists still exist in Germany, as well as other documents that can help clarify what a family’s surname was before the official name change, and reveal if they actually changed their surname or were able to hold on to the family’s original name. Birth registrations in Naugard, Prussia, for example, list a Nathan Friedländer with the added remark: “by the name Silberstein”. Some records show him as Nathan Friedländer Silberstein, while he only appears as Silberstein after 1821. Between 1800 and the 1820s many “double names” can be found in documents – usually they reveal the family's surname before the name change, however in a few cases the families had adopted a new surname they didn’t care for after a while, so they changed again.
Older records written in Hebrew seem to be quite rare, and it is unclear if they were lost of destroyed over time afer the new regulations of the early 1800s took effect, when every German Jewish community was required to keep their Jewish records in the German language. Not all of these new German records were kept in an orderly fashion, and subsequently research can be slow and arduous in some cases. But there are also plenty of examples where records were kept very well, and in those cases Jewish ancestry can easily be traced to the 1800s, or even further into the past.
Please note: Jewish families were required change their names everywhere in Germany. Subsequently many families who were not related at all chose the exact same surnames: if your family came from the same town as another family with the exact surname as yours, it does therefore not necessarily mean that you are related to that family! You have to consult citizenship lists and name change papers, or other reliable certificates and papers, before you can make that determination. Example: When researching a Pulvermacher family who had settled in Berlin said to be related to the famous Pulvermachers from Posen, I was surprised to find that one of the families had adopted the Pulvermacher surname during a name change as late as the 1840s, and was in no way related to any of the other families by the same surname!
It is advisable to never draw conclusions before having carefully researched one’s family records!
Jewish and Christian Surnames
While some of the newly chosen surnames are the same as the surnames of their Christian neighbors, others reflect the sensitivities of Romanticism, leading many to think of such names as “typical Jewish names”. Plant names such as Mandelbaum, Rosenbusch, Rosenbaum, Rosenstihl, Rosenstock, Rosenberg, Weinstock, or professional names such as Goldschmidt, Krämer, Mahler, Eisenhändler, may come to mind.
There were however numerous German Christian families, especially so in East and West Prussia, who had carried the surnames of Rosenberg, Rosenbaum, Rosenkranz, Goldschmidt, Goldberg, etc. already for many centuries. It is therefore extremely important to research one’s family history carefully, and once again, not to jump to any conclusions simply based on a surname.
In other words: a “Jewish sounding German surname” does not necessarily mean that ones ancestors were Jewish if one’s parents and grandparents were Christians! The same applies to German surnames mentioned in Jewish surname databases. When entering those same names into a regular database, one will very likely come across the same names among Christian families.
To prove this point, here is another example of Jewish name changes in the early 1800s from the District Administration of Durlach, in the Duchy of Baden: 17 Jewish families lived in the village of Weingarten (plus 6 individuals who were not married). Before the name change there were 3 families with the surname Esaias, obviously relatives or brothers, however each of them changed to a different surname! Among the 17 families the following names were chosen: Bachmann, Bär, Baum, Blum, Fuchs, Hirsch, Holz, Klein, Krieger, Löwenstein (previously Löw), Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, Schmidt, Schwarz, Sommer, Stahl, Stein, Stengel, Weidenreich, Winter. While Löwenstein, Meerapfel, Rose, Rothschild, indeed sound like “typical Jewish surnames”, all of the other surnames are in most cases not “Jewish names”, with a large number of German families who already had carried those surnames for centuries.
There were at all times Jews in Germany who converted to Christianity, however before the 1790s such conversions were few, and very far between. Pastors, as well as the nobility, welcomed such conversions and often encouraged them by handing out lavish gifts and money to the new convert. Special entries were made in the church book describing such baptisms, and who attended. Some of these Jewish converts to Christianity were eventually married to a Christian in the same community, and the marriage record usually has added remarks referring to the previous conversion. Other converts were sent to distant towns, to remove them from the “bad” influence of their former friends and family. Before the 1790s given names and surnames of the Jewish convert were typically changed at baptism, in order to bring about a “clean break” to the past.
Only after the 1790s the number of converts increased – after all, conversion guaranteed access to full citizenship rights and professions, less discrimination, and opened many new doors (but the German nobility still didn’t extend invitations to their social events, except to extremely wealthy individuals).
After centuries of continual persecution, and having been shut out from German cultural life, the Jewish supporters of Enlightenment called for assimilation and reform. Most German Jews struggled to assimilate while holding on to Jewish religion at the same time, but others felt that assimilation into German-Christian culture was the highest prize to pursue, and that differences between both religions could easily be reconciliated. After all, both religions preached that one had to care for and love ones neighbor! There must have been thousands of converts between the 1790s and 1850s, some of them very famous poets, musicians, and socialites. The majority of converts though were rather well educated, middle-class Jews.
Hitler and his National-Socialists were well aware that many such conversions had taken place, as well as the fact that they were recorded in the church books. That is the reason why Germans were required to prove their Arian background in their “Ahnen Pass”, their “Passport of Ancestors”, and information on at least 3 generations of ancestors had to be given. If a convert was discovered, one was clearly not considered “Arian”, and many children and grandchildren of converts suffered the exact same fate as those who had remained true to their faith.
If your family is Christian by religion, but you suspect that your ancestors are Jewish, and/or that your surname sounds Jewish and you would like to research the matter, you should begin by finding your ancestor’s district or town of origin in Germany. Based on this information we can search for your ancestor’s birth record, his or her parents records, and other family records, and step by step and carefully trace your family tree, and in the process answer your questions.
If, on the other hand, we end up researching your family tree back to the 1700s and don’t find any trace of a conversion, chances still might exist that your ancestors may, at one point, have been Jewish, but these chances are really quite minuscule (again, conversions were rare before the 1790s in Germany).
There was another large group of European Jewish converts in the 1400s – Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism before their expulsion from Spain in 1492. History books refer to them as Marranos, or Conversos. Baptized under threat of being burnt at the stake to Catholicism, many of their descendants remained outwardly Christian for generations until it was safe for them to revert back to their old faith. Some families however never returned to Judaism. Most of these Conversos fled to Turkey, some to West Africa, to the Caribbean Islands, South America and from there also to New Mexico, and a number of them settled in Germany and Poland. Their surnames often sound Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, or Arab – usually not German. In some cases it may be possible to trace such families back to their origins, as long as they lived in towns where old records of Marrano/Converso populations exist – however: most German church books only go back to the 1600s or 1700s.
German, Austrian, or Swiss Family Crests
with the Star of David
I have been asked by descendants of Christian families if their family seal might not be clear proof of Jewish origins, since it includes a symbol like the Star of David. The answer is clear: No, a Star of David in an old family crest does not proof Jewish origins. Before the Nazi Era and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, Christian sensitivities towards this symbol were different than today. Many villages and towns displayed a star like the Star of David in their crests. It was considered to be a Christian symbol, since the Christian church (whether Catholic, Lutheran, or other denominations) claimed to be the “New Israel”. The Masonic Lodge embraced this star symbol as well, using it in their displays and rituals. And further, European nobility and royalty claimed to be heirs of the throne of David and of Jerusalem, especially after the Crusades and subsequent occupation of Jerusalem. The royalty of Austria and Spain still uphold this claim to this very day.
If you suspect that your family is of Jewish origin and would like to know and proof so, you need to search for written proof; old documentation still exists and can be found most everywhere in Germany.
If you would like to find your Jewish or your Christian ancestors in Germany, Switzerland, or in other countries where records were kept in the German language, I will gladly be of assistance. I’m an expert in deciphering old German Script and German genealogy research. I also know the country of Germany, German, Christian, and Jewish history very well. Over the years I have built a team of highly educated and reliable German research associates, who can offer support and access records in Germany on location if need be.
© 2007-2015 Esther Bauer