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Monday, January 9, 2023

The Myth of Ellis Island Name Changes

Caitlin Hollander:

[We] are told by our grandparents “oh, the name was changed at Ellis Island”. And at first glance, it seems to be true- from mobsters (Meyer Lansky was born Meier Suchowlanski) to actors (Jack Benny was Benjamin Kubelsky), everyone seems to have come to America with a different name. This story is an accepted part of the early 20th century immigrant experience- that immigration officials changed the names of immigrants due to racism, misunderstandings, an attempt to “Americanize”, or simply because they did not care.

But none of it is true- simply put, it is one of the greatest urban legends ingrained in the modern American psyche. The commonly given reasons behind these supposed name changes do not hold up to the historical facts of immigration through Ellis Island.

The names recorded at Ellis Island were taken directly from the passenger manifests, which were made up at the port of departure. In addition, Ellis Island employed a number of interpreters who spoke the immigrants’ native languages. In 1911, Commissioner William Williams wrote to Washington, providing both the number of interpreters for each language and asking for funding to hire more.
But a more practical barrier existed to a permanent name change being made at Ellis Island in the early 20th century, and one that we do not think of in the age of digitization. Once you left Ellis Island, there was nothing indicated what name you had entered under, at least nothing that would matter in your day to day life. Depending on the era in which they had come to America, the immigrant might never see what name they had entered under. Alien Registration Forms were only created in 1940. Even when applying for citizenship, you provided first, the name you went by and second, the name under which you entered the US (as seen in the petition for naturalization above). The assumption was that the former was now your legal name. After 1906, when nationwide standardization of the process was instituted, you had to simply provide affidavits from witnesses that had known you in the US for 5 years- later on, proofs of arrival were included in petitions for naturalization, but this part of the process was only slowly adapted. And no ID existed at the time for a job, school, or housing to require.