I won’t try to claim that name changes pose a greater challenge to Jewish family historians than those of other groups — although I’m convinced they do. I just don’t have a sufficient basis for comparison to prove it.
Unique Genealogical Circumstances
I can, however, assert that those searching for Eastern European Jewish ancestors will face some unique challenges. Citing only two with direct impact on my family history:
- In 1787, a law passed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire required Jews to register a permanent family surname, and required that the surname be German. The one my family chose was Kornmehl, which, typically, described a profession, grain processing and trading.
- The Jews who moved to Palestine during World War II often wanted — and were strongly encouraged to — change their names from Teutonic to Hebraic ones. Thus Kornmehl morphed into Carmel, Koren — two brothers adopted different surnames, yet! — and Kornel when some family members left Europe for the Middle East; I wrote about it in Genealogy Gehenna: The Hebraization of Jewish Surnames.
I recently encountered a reason for a family name change that was new to me.
The family claim
I wrote last week about making the acquaintance of the branch of the Kornmehl family who were the closest to my mother, relatives of her uncle David Schmerling and Aunt Mizzi (Kornmehl) Schmerling, and their offspring, Stella, Hermine, and Edith.
According to the family story told by David Schmerling’s niece, Flora, about her father, Heinrich:
Slowly he built up a reputation of honest dealing of which he was tremendously proud… He was also very proud to be a Schmerling, the name of an Austrian Prime Minister who had befriended the Jews in an earlier age and whose name the Jews had adopted in his honor
A version of this story was told at the eulogy that I cited in the earlier piece, only in that case the name-conferring Schmerling was cited as a mayor of Vienna rather than an Austrian prime minister. That eulogy has some inaccuracies, however — and, in any case, there is no Viennese mayor with the name of Schmerling.
“Personally I Am Not In Sympathy with the Jews.”
I searched for a Schmerling in the Austrian government.
The only one I came up with was Anton von Schmerling, the interior minister of the Austrian Empire from 1860 to 1865. The Wikipedia entry devoted to my family’s supposed namesake didn’t yield any information about his role vis a vis the Jews, however, and the politics of the day were too complex for me to sort out.
So I tried the search terms “Anton von Schmerling” and “Jews.” This time I got an entry in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia — with a match under the term “Anti-Semitism.” The relevant portion reads:
The defeat of Austria in 1866 and its financial condition, which bordered on bankruptcy, had brought the German-Liberal element to the front…. What might be called Anti-Semitism came from the ranks of those who were opposed to the principle of religious liberty and political equality, or could be heard among those who, while liberal in principle, drew the line of distinction in the social life. Thus Anton von Schmerling, a former minister-president in the Austrian House of Lords (1880), urged the necessity of instruction in German in schools in order to overcome the advantageous position of the Jewish soldiers in the regiments of Galicia, who, owing to their knowledge of the German language, had better chances of promotion to the position of non-commissioned officers; he added, “Personally, I am not in sympathy with the Jews.” [italics mine]
I was perplexed.
I turned to an expert on Jewish names, Philip Trauring, blogger at Blood and Frogs and Lexigenealogy. Was it common for Jews to adopt the names of public figures, I wondered, and noted that the only one whose name seemed to match my family’s story was an antisemite.
Trauring said it was rare for Jews to take on the names of public figures, but wrote:
I can’t speak to the specific case, but it’s entirely possible the family wanted to change their name to something less Jewish sounding and picked a name of a prominent person, whether or not he was good to the Jews. It’s also possible the official did something nice for this specific family, or even that they did it to spite the official if he did something they didn’t like (and found it amusing to have Jews with his last name). Of course all of that is supposition.
But then I realized that the historical time frame did not make Anton von Schmerling a likely source of the family name: The first Schmerling to turn up on the family tree has a birth date of 1850, which predates the prime of Anton von Schmerling’s political career (1860-1865).
Back to the drawing board.
Mother Knows Best
I mentioned earlier that in 1787, the Jews of the Austro-Hungrarian empire were required to take German surnames. Philip Trauring wrote on the topic in Religious Marriages, Civil Marriages and Surnames from Mothers:
… many Jews had little use for their assigned surnames in the 19th century. Thus, even though they had assigned surnames which the government used to assess taxes, conscript men into the army, etc., in terms of everyday usage Jews really didn’t care about their surnames. In addition, civil marriage was largely ignored by many Jews, as it generally was expensive. Jews tended to have religious marriages and only got civilly married if they or their children for some reason needed it….
So what happened if your parents did not have a civil marriage? In some cases it meant you would need to take your mother’s maiden name as your surname. That’s because even if your father was listed on your birth certificate, he was not legally married to your mother, and thus you needed to take on your mother’s last name for legal purposes.
So one of the Kornmehl offspring likely took on the name of his mother, rather than that of his father.
But that still leaves open the question: What type of name is Schmerling and how did the first Jewish Schmerling come to adopt it? It doesn’t refer to a profession as, say, Kornmehl does. I could find no meaning for the name listed.
A Town in Germany
I told the story of the Kornmehls and Anton von Schmerling to a friend who pointed out that the term “von” is equivalent of “from” and would be a geographical reference. So I searched for Schmerling as a place name.
There is a Schmerling, Germany, as it turns out. I can tell you what the weather will be like there tomorrow and what time Muslims should pray there — but still draw a blank when it comes to the question of why it should be of significance to the Kornmehl family. The town is not far from the border of the Netherlands, where one of David Schmerling’s brothers and his family hid out during the war. But that’s clutching at straws.
The question remains: Where did the family name Schmerling come from? Stay tuned…
Note: The picture at the top of the post has no direct bearing on the story. But it was sent to me by cousin Rita over the weekend and I couldn’t resist using it. Who wouldn’t want to search for information about a family that dresses their children in such adorable outfits?
Update: Mystery solved! Leonard Schneider, keeper of the vast Kornmehl family tree, wrote in an email:
When Jews took Germanic names in 1787 they had a whole list to choose from. Included in the list were animals, fish and birds. Schmerling is a Loach fish and was probably on the name list. It does not mean the Schmerlings were fishermen but on the other had they could have had a fish connection.
I had never heard of a loach fish, so I looked it up. From the Encyclopedia Britannica:
loach, any of the small, generally elongated freshwater fishes of the family Cobitidae. More than 200 species are known; most are native to central and southern Asia, but three are found in Europe and one in northern Africa. A typical loach has very small scales and three to six pairs of whiskerlike barbels around its mouth. In some species, such as the spined loach (Cobitis taenia) of Eurasia, there is also a short, movable spine near each eye.
Here is a picture of a clown loach.
I’ve seen those pretty fish in many aquariums.