Friday, August 24, 2007

Family Myths: More on the Dudelsacks

The upcoming Carnival topic is: Confirm or Debunk: Family Myths, Legends, and Lore. For this topic I'm returning to my funny family surname which I discussed a few Carnivals ago. Dudelsack.


Selig Dudelsack had several siblings. One brother, named Yidel, and one sister, named Toba, immigrated to the US, as did Selig. All three changed their surname at Ellis Island to something different. Selig chose Feinstein, Yidel chose Odelson, and Toba chose Oberman (or maybe married an Oberman…)

This myth comes from Selig’s youngest daughter, who was born in the US. I think she told the stories in the 1970s. None of her parents or siblings born in Poland/Russia were still alive.


First, it wasn’t at Ellis Island. At least not Selig, and most likely not Yidel and Toba. It was Castle Garden. But that is a common mistake made with ancestors who immigrated pre-Ellis Island.

Second, the pervasive myth of name-changing at Ellis Island or Castle Garden is as unlikely with them as it was with anyone else. The myth is based on the idea that when an immigration official asked the immigrant their name, they either didn’t know what the question was, or decided to give them a different answer. This assumes that there were no translators available, and/or the only information the immigrant needed to provide to enter the US was a verbal declaration of who they were. It’s amazing that this myth is so ingrained in our collective minds that we don’t think about it rationally. I know I didn’t until recently. Of course they had translators. Of course they required documentation. Any name changes most likely occurred before or after, not during. Sure: changes in spelling are possible. But not entirely new names.


A ship manifest for a Selig Dudersack has been located for 1890 which is the year that appears on the census reports for their immigration. No ship manifest for a Selig Feinstein has been found. But the argument that “I have never seen a black swan, so black swans don’t exist” is so common a logical fallacy it is taught in introductory logic courses and has its own name: The Black Swan Fallacy. One must be careful not to fall for it. There are black swans. (They're native to Australia.)

Selig Dudersack, for all appearances, traveled alone. But it's not unusual for a family member, especially the head of the family, to make the voyage first, and in 1891 there is a ship manifest that contains all the given names for mother, wife, and children. Can you guess the surname? Correct: Feinstein. The ages for the children are correct. The age for the wife is pretty close. The age for the mother is way off, by decades. Clerical error? No Selig though. It’s certainly still possible that one of two things happened. 1) After Selig immigrated, he changed his name to Feinstein, and sent communication overseas to his family who he knew would want to know. So they changed their names before immigration. 2) They made the decision to change their name before Selig left, but not in time for him to change his documents, so he traveled under Dudelsack, but the rest of the family had time to change their documents.
The only evidence that may exist for this is birth records and marriage records in Poland/Russia. Unfortunately, we don’t know what town they lived in. Selig’s wife, Anna, had a brother named Jacob. Jacob’s naturalization petition gave a town in Russia named Szdobirtzen. The certificate says Szdobeitzen, Poland. Either way, no one can find this town on a map. He immigrated several years after Anna and Selig so the town he came from, while likely the town Anna came from, isn’t necessarily. If we could find it though, it would be a starting place.


Selig’s youngest daughter said that Yidel “Odelson” never had any descendants. So no one looked. I found a Judal Dudelsuck at Castle Garden, though. The Y/J spelling variance is common as there is no letter ‘J’ in Hebrew. Joseph is pronounced Yosef. Jacob is pronounced Yakob (or Yakov). I found a Julius and Jennie Odelsohn in St. Louis. Lots of Hebrew names were Americanized, and Julius isn’t too much of a stretch for Judal. What’s really interesting is that in 1910, Julius and Jennie are living next door to Selig’s oldest son, Harry. Julius and Jennie’s oldest child, Pearl, is married and living next door to a Aron and Tillie Oberman. (Remember Toba?) Relatives living next door to each other was common. Of course, non-relatives living next door to each other was even more common.

Pearl and Morris Feldman had six children. Julius and Jennie’s son Louis had a daughter named Bernice. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, though I have only been researching this thread since July. I’d like to find some descendants and see if they have family stories that match ours.

Update: August 30: I have found Tillie Oberman's death certificate. Not only do the given names for both parents on her death certificate match the parents of Selig, the informant gives her father's surname as "Duderzock." Not only is this what I am going to consider proof of all my assumptions, but a completely new spelling! (I guess someone could argue I don't have proof that Julius is Yidel. But I'd say the odds are high.)


Janice said...


This is not only a wonderful story of a family's immigration, but also of the great care that you have taken to find documents that prove, or disprove the accuracy of your family stories.

It was also worthwhile to go back and read the very curious post on Dudelsacks.


Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

The Feinstein change is tough to figure. I know with Italian immigrants women sometimes traveled under their maiden names.

I am stumped trying to find the German/Prussian town that my husbands family came from. I tried the JewishGen town search and got too many possibles on my town name. When I put yours in I got nothing likely. I did try changing the S to C and found a town near the Polish/Russian border. A long shot but maybe you'll come up with something if you play with it. The town names in Prussia were changed so many times that it is very frustrating.

John said...

Many Jewish families chose less unusual names upon arriving in America. Often just to make a clean break with their pasts since they were often fleeing persecution. What makes it difficult for the genealogist is when no mention of the former name is made in any American document. Even the father who passed away before their journey to America had his name changed posthumously on death certificates. (Luckily the sister married in Russia, and never considered her maiden name to have changed.)

My current suspicion is it may have been Dobrzyn, which did geographically switch between Russia and Poland. I don't know Russian, but it appears to account for all the sounds in the written name except for the initial SZ soudn.

Miriam Robbins said...

This reminds me of how some of the facts in the story of my immigrant ancestors, the Valks, got changed around.