While it is not City Council candidate Sonja Finn’s fault that she believes the genealogical bubbie-meise that her family’s name — Fivenzinsky — was “changed by Irish immigration officers at Ellis Island” (“Five candidates now vying for Gilman’s seat on City Council,” Jan. 26), I would have hoped the Chronicle would not have passed along that mistaken information to the larger Jewish community, who continue to operate under the collective delusion that name changes were forced upon us.
In reality, Ellis Island inspectors merely checked the names of immigrants against those in passenger lists created by steamship employees in the cities of origin. Immigrants either changed their names before they traveled, following the lead of relatives who preceded them or after they had already been in America for some time.
One such petition I found from 1899 claimed that the name Davidovitz, “difficult of orthography” and “unpronounceable to Americans” would impede this man’s ability to go into business for himself. Our ancestors had agency in the way they became Americans.
While a quick search does not turn up the immigration records for Finn’s immigrant ancestors, her great-grandfather, Hyman Samuel, and great-great-grandfather, Abraham, together came from Vilna around 1903. I doubt that the original name was Fivenzinsky, as nothing like it appears in any Vilna-area records. There were Fins in Vilna, though.
I wish Sonja Finn the best of luck in her race, and I wish all of us good fortune in uncovering the amazing stories of our immigrant ancestors.