Jewish Genealogy - Origin of Jewish Surnames in Poland

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Last week I described the Origin of Surnames in Poland. Lets focus on Jewish names in Poland this week.

Most Poles had surnames by the 1700s, often 100 to 200 years earlier. On the other hand, most Jews living in the Commonwealth of Poland (which included modern-day Lithuania, western Ukraine, and Belarus) did not have surnames until required to do so by authorities in the 1800s. This means that Jewish surnames were given during a period for which many historical records still survive, so they can be traced back in history more easily. Also, their meaning may be understood better than the surnames that were established before the earliest surviving records.

In the old times, Jews in Poland were named after their fathers (this so- called "otczestwo," or "father's name" was also very important in Russia). For instance Abram, son of Berk was called "Berkowicz" or "Berkson"; the son of "Ezof" was called "Ezofowicz" and son of "Mortka-Mordechaj" was called "Mortkowicz." These fathers' names sometimes automatically were converted into last names. Thus David, son of Abram, was already called David Berkowicz etc.

In addition, Jews were also given German names (Fischel, Hirsch, Toeplitz), Polish names (Paluch, Maka-Maczak), or Hebrew names (Lewim, Tuwim). Typical Jewish names from the time of Polish partition include Goldberg, Silberstein, or Feldman. Jews who converted to Christianity were given surnames such as Nawrocki (from Polish "nawrócić" = "convert"), Dobrowolski (from Polish "Dobra wola" = "good will", meaning "converted from good (free) will), Lutosławski (from Polish "luty" = "February", meaning "converted in February), Kwietniewski (from Polish "kwiecień" = "April", meaning "converted in April"), Majewski (from Polish "maj" = "May", meaning "converted in May"), Grudziński (from Polish "grudzień" = "December", meaning "converted in December") or Zieliński (from Polish feast of "Panna Maria Zielna" or "Herbal Madonna", meaning "converted during the Feast of the Herbal Madonna or Pentecost").

Some Jewish names were also polonized. For instance, the last name "Kamiński" comes from the German ending "-stein" (Polish "kamień" = German "Stein" = Eng. "stone") and "Górski" comes from the German ending "-berg" (Polish "góra" = German "Berg" = Eng. "mountain").

Many of the above-mentioned surnames were very popular in Poland and the origin of some may not be Jewish. For instance, not all people with the surname "Zieliński" were of Jewish descent, some had their name derived from Polish feast of "Panna Maria Zielna."

Some Jewish names originate from the cities inhabited by Jews. For instance, the name of the famous Russian physicist of Jewish origin, Landau, comes from the small town Landau on the border between Germany and Switzerland. Other names that originate from cities include Morawski, from Morawy (Moravia); Warschauer, Warszawski or Warski (all three names are from Warszawa (Warsaw), the Polish capital; and Krakowski (from Krakow).

The best website devoted to Jewish genealogy is Read more articles devoted to Jewish culture and history in Poland among them articles about Auschwitz history.

written by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn, January 2001 (article #24)
Updated by Nancy Maciolek Blake, September 2005

I recommend a book written by Roman Vishniac and Elie Wiesel entitled:
Jews in Poland, A Vanished World

Consider also a scholarly study of some Europeans ethnic groups written by Matthew Frye Jacobson and David Roediger entitled:
Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States

Check also Jewish genealogy books in Amazon's selections:

Here are links to the other articles from the series:

Find Your Ancestors: Search by Surname and Province

Origin of Surnames in Poland

How to find the Family Nest

How to use to find a location in Poland

How to find the Ancestors, Final Remarks

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